Rivalries, tougher road back with realignment

Long ago consigned to the Southeast Division, the Capitals finally will be reunited with their original rivals when the NHL realigns its 30 teams next season, pending approval of the league's Board of Governors.

The last major realignment took place before the 1998-99 season and sent Washington south, where its new divisional opponents in Raleigh, N.C.; Atlanta; Miami; and Tampa, Fla., had virtually no history in the sport. Meanwhile, its old Patrick Division rivals -- the teams Caps fans loved to hate -- continued on without them in the reconstituted Atlantic Division.

But there will be one serious drawback to playing again in the same division as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the three New York-area teams: Making the Stanley Cup playoffs just became a lot more difficult.

Up next
Hurricanes at Capitals
When » Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where » Verizon Center

"The nice thing about our division now is we've had the luxury of not having to be the best all the time and still get into a good position in the playoffs," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It will be tough. We'll have to be a lot more honest during the season. We'll have to be a better team all year."

The Caps have spent 14 seasons in the Southeast, but legitimate rivalries never really took. Its low reputation wasn't always fair. The Carolina Hurricanes reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2002 and won it in 2006. The Tampa Bay Lightning won a title in 2004. But the depth has never been there. Three teams from the Southeast Division have never qualified for the playoffs in the same season.

Last season, the Atlantic Division, where the Caps, Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets are headed, had four teams with more than 100 points. New Jersey (2012), Philadelphia (2010) and Pittsburgh (2008, 2009) have all made the Stanley Cup finals in recent years. The New York Rangers were the Eastern Conference's top seed last season.

Under the expected new playoff format, only the top three Atlantic Division teams are guaranteed a playoff spot with two wild-card berths available.

That's the cost. The benefit is more games against rivals. And it isn't hard to tell the difference at Verizon Center when the Penguins or Flyers are in town compared to the Florida Panthers or Winnipeg Jets, who moved from Atlanta before last season.

"I think a lot of the Islander-Ranger games I played in there were more fights in the stands than on the ice," Washington defenseman Tom Poti said. "I think it will be good. The more games against closer teams will bring better rivalries and better hockey and more fun for everyone to watch."

That is still a year away, of course. For now the Hurricanes (14-9-1, 29 points) and Caps (10-13-1, 21 points) can continue their Southeast Division rivalry with back-to-back games this week -- the first at Verizon Center on Tuesday and the second at RBC Center in Raleigh on Thursday.

It could be the last stand in 2013 for Washington, which sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and is seven points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. A pair of losses to Carolina would leave the Caps 12 points out of the division lead with 22 remaining. Of course, they also could cut that lead in half with a pair of wins.