Monday, August 05, 2013

Washington Capitals: Rivalries Reborn -- The "MetroPatrick" Division, Part I

With the National Hockey League realigning into four divisions, memories are conjured of rivalries past in divisions that look similar to what the NHL will field this season.  For Washington Capitals fans, who will be cheering for the local entry in the Metropolitian Division during the 2013-2014 season, those memories are of the Patrick Division, named for the legendary player, coach, and administrator Lester Patrick. 

For 19 seasons the Patrick Division was synonymous with hard-nosed hockey and intense rivalries.  As we begin a new history with the Metropolitan Division we are going to take a look back over an old one, that of the Patrick Division and the Washington Capitals’ history in it.  We’ll start with the Capitals…

When the Patrick Division was established for the 1974-1975 season, the Caps – also celebrating their inaugural season – were not a part of it.  They were stuffed into the Norris Division, where they compiled their historic 8-67-5 record that still stands as the record for standings points futility in the post-1967 expansion era of the National Hockey League.

The Caps would not be realigned into the Patrick Division until the 1979-1980 season when the league expanded by four teams.  The expansion Hartford Whalers would take the Caps’ place in the Norris Division, and the Caps were moved to a division that included the following:
  • Philadelphia Flyers
  • New York Rangers
  • New York Islanders
  • Atlanta Flames

The next season the Atlanta Flames would move to Calgary, yet remain in the Patrick Division, a move that will look all too familiar to contemporary fans who witnessed the Atlanta Thrashers move from Georgia to Manitoba to become the Winnipeg Jets for the 2011-2012 season.  The following year the Flames were replaced by the Pittsburgh Penguins, another transplant from the Norris Division.  The 1982-1983 season saw the New Jersey Devils, formerly the Colorado Rockies of the Smythe Division, moved into the Patrick Division.  The six-team division would last until the division was renamed the “Atlantic” for the 1993-1994 season.

Looking back at the Caps’ role in this Patrick Division history, their first season in the division in 1979-1980 was hardly an auspicious debut.  They finished last in their new division with a 27-40-13 record.  Last place is where the Caps would stay for the next two seasons before finishing the 1982-1983 season with a 39-25-16 record, good for third place in the division and their first appearance in the post-season in franchise history. 

That first-ever playoff appearance in the 1982-1983 season started an 11-year run (ending when the Patrick Division was reorganized into the Atlantic Division for the 1993-1994 season)  that might be considered by some to be the Golden Era of Capitals Hockey.  Over those 11 years the Caps never finished lower than third in the division, averaged 43 wins and 95 points per season, and made the playoffs in each of them.  They won their only regular season divisional title in 1989.  Here is the Capitals’ regular season record against each of their Patrick Division opponents:

(click on picture for a larger image)

The regular season was not where the divisional rivalries stopped, either.  In those days, the post-season started with two rounds of intra-divisional series, meaning that of the 17 playoff series in which the Caps participated over those 11 years, 16 of them were played against Patrick Division rivals (the exception being the Prince of Wales Conference final against Boston in 1990).  That also means, this being a history of the Washington Capitals, that only once could they advance past two Patrick Division rivals to reach a conference final. 

The playoffs became the place where the road to heartbreak was first paved for the Caps.  You could say that it started in 1986.  That was the season in which the Caps set a franchise record (since broken) for standings points in a single season with 107.   The Philadelphia Flyers, who finished ahead of the Caps for the regular season division crown, lost to the New York Rangers in the first round of the post season while the Caps were making short work of the New York Islanders in a three-game sweep.  That turn of events meant that the Caps chances for advancing to their first conference final were looking up.  Things looked even better considering that the Caps finished 29 points ahead of the Rangers – their division final opponent – in the regular season. 

It all came crashing down, though, when the Caps, who outscored the Rangers by a 14-4 margin in Games 2 and 3 after dropping Game 1 in overtime, lost Games 4-6 and the series.

It just got worse the next season.  Until then, the Caps had not won either of their two previous seven-game series (until 1987 the division semi-finals were a best-of-five affair).  When they went out to a 3-1 lead in games against the New York Islanders in the division semi-finals, things looked good.  The Caps would have to lose the last three games of the series to forfeit the chance to advance to the division finals. 

Losing three straight games is just what the Caps did, though, dropping Game 7 in four overtimes to the Islanders.  The Caps would lose another Game 7 the following year against the New Jersey Devils.  They would drop the last three games of their opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1989 after taking a 2-1 lead in games.  After advancing to the conference final in 1990, the Caps dropped a second round series to Pittsburgh in 1991, losing the last four games after winning Game 1.  In 1992 it was the Penguins again, this time the victim of losing the last three games of the series after taking a 3-1 lead.

Overall, the Caps compiled a 6-10 record in series against Patrick Division teams in 11 years of post season action.  And while the Penguins are remembered these days as being the source of disappointment for the Caps, it was the New York Islanders of the period who were the thorns in the sides of the Caps.  Only once in six tries did the Caps solve the Isles in a playoff series, and that one came in a five-game series that the Caps won, 3-0, in 1986:

(click on picture for larger image)

It was not all bad, though.  The Caps, who struggled against the Philadelphia Flyers in the regular season over 13 season as Patrick Division rivals with a 40-44-9 record, beat the Flyers in two of three playoff series, one of them ending in what might be considered by some as the high point in franchise history, an overtime goal in Game 7 by Dale Hunter to win the 1988 series, 4-3.

There was the “Druce on the Loose” year of 1990, when John Druce – a heretofore unrenowned winger with just one game of post-season experience – scored 14 goals (four of them game-winners) in 15 post-season games. 

There was the 1991 opening round series against the Rangers when, after dropping a 6-0 decision to go down 2-1 in games, the Caps came back to win the last three games of the series.

But as much as the wins and losses, the highs and the lows, was the style.  Patrick Division games were not just studies in grit, they were often contests bordering on mayhem.  A quick perusal of the Caps’ record book offers evidence…
  • Most penalty minutes… 177 in a 6-1 win at Philadelphia on December 21, 1980
  • Most penalty minutes, both teams… 344 in that same 6-1 win in Philadelphia on December 21, 1980
  • Most penalty minutes in a home game… 147 in a 5-2 win over the Flyers on February 10, 1991
  • Most penalty minutes, both teams, in a home game… 294 in that same 5-2 win over the Flyers on February 10, 1991
  • Most penalty minutes, individual… Randy Holt (34) in a 4-4 tie against Philadelphia on March 27, 1982
  • Most penalty minutes (period), individual… Randy Holt (34) in that 4-4 tie against the Flyers on March 27, 1982

In the first 11 seasons in which the Caps competed in the Patrick Division, a Patrick Division team was represented nine times in the top five teams in the league in fighting majors (1984-1985 and 1987-1988 being the exceptions).  Three times the division had two teams in the top five, and on three other occasions the Patrick had three teams in the top five, including 1981-1982 when Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington occupied the top three spots.  The Caps – led by Alan May’s league-high 31 fighting majors – led the league in total fighting majors in the 1989-1990 season (source:

As the Caps embark on a new history against old rivals, with a couple of rivals of more recent vintage thrown in, it will look a little bit like those days in the 1980’s and early 1990’s when these teams fought for every inch of ice.  The days of fisticuffs are becoming a dimmer and more distant memory, but the intensity of those rivalries will be something for fans and players alike to look forward to renewing.  We will take a look back from time to time over the next month at those old rivalries and how they might be renewed in the “MetroPatrick” Division.