Monday, September 25, 2006

The Atlantic Division, By Any Other Name...

I was starting to prepare my gameday preview for tomorrow night's Caps-Flyers matchup and I found myself looking forward to this game that I wasn't going to get to watch and that wasn't going to matter. In fact, the last two preseason games were also highly-anticipated, and I know why - it was pure nostalgia, a reminder of my childhood when the Caps were part of one of the toughest and most entertaining divisions in hockey: the Patrick Division.

Ah, the Patrick Division - Caps, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers and Penguins...the 11-year span with that lineup set the foundation for some of our strongest rivalries, all of which last to this day. I will still glare at anyone wearing a Rangers jersey and get more pumped up for a showdown with the Penguins than with any other team in the NHL. All of this wonderful hatred and joyous loathing grew out of legendary battles between these teams (and their fans), in both regular season and playoff meetings. Remember the good old days when the first two rounds of the playoffs were between divisional rivals? Now that's how you build a rivalry.

Today those enemies of yesteryear are happily ensconced in the Atlantic Division. For them, nothing has changed, only now they see each other 8 times a year and see us only 4. Meanwhile, the Caps are forced to play against upstart expansion teams and a transplanted club from Hartford. Yay.

I mean no disrespect to our current division; after somewhat dubious beginnings, the Southeast Division has gone on to produce 2 Stanley Cup champs in the last 2 years, and all but one team has played in the finals in the last decade. It's not that I love these teams, either - I nurture a keen dislike of all things related to the Carolina Hurricanes just on principle (um, cheerleaders? Seriously?) and there's no love lost when it comes to Florida, Atlanta, and Tampa.

Yet there's something missing in these rivalries. I feel it every time I go to a game against a division rival - sure we hate Atlanta, but do we hate Atlanta? Do fist fights break out in the stands between Caps fans and Panthers fans? Of course not. It's because these rivalries are manufactured, pure outgrowths of geographic location and little else. It's because there hasn't been a playoff series between these teams yet. And yes, it's because these teams are in traditionally non-hockey areas - the hockey craziness just doesn't run that deep in the south, at least not yet. When a Thrashers fan sits in my section, 9 times out of 10 they sit there quietly and only cheer when their team scores. Now give me a drunken Rangers fan (because there is always a drunken Rangers fan somewhere, isn't there?) and it's like theater.

Sure, we may in time develop that same deep animosity towards our own division - it may already be starting with those lovable misfits down in Atlanta. And the first time that two Southeast Division teams meet in the playoffs, there will definitely be fireworks. Just look at last year's end of year marathon with the Hurricanes and you could tell something was starting to brew before it was cut off by, you know, the season ending and stuff.

Nothing stays the same and we must adapt and evolve with the world around us...but you'll excuse me if I reserve a little piece of my hatred for our old friends, the Patrick Division. With that, bring on the orange and black!


Caps Nut said...

Sorry, but I beg to differ. The (Chuck) Norris Division has to be considered the "toughest" division of the pre-1990's expansion NHL.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the old Patrick Division, but those guys in Norris put anything we were doing in the Patrick Division to shame.

DCCapsChick said...

I think the argument could be made for either division, actually, depending on the year. To me, a tough division is one where the teams are all so even that no one is able to run away with the division title. We saw that happen several times in both divisions in the 80s; having said that, there were also years where first and last place in each division was separated by 60 or 70 points (take that golden year of 1983-84 for example – the Caps finished with 101 points, Pittsburgh with 38...ah, memories...)

I think the only reason I remember the Patrick Division as being tougher is because the same teams played each other for 11 years, while the Norris Division was changed pretty frequently throughout the 80s and early 90s...or maybe it just seemed tougher because we lost to the same teams in the playoffs every year :) I do think it’s definitely open to interpretation, though – thanks for weighing in!