Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Hockey Rivalry Is like Lightning in a Bottle


"We don't like the way they dive every two seconds and they lead the league in power play attempts because they've got guys like [Steve] Downie -- even though he might not be playing tonight -- who if I was a referee I would never make a call on him ever because he dives every two seconds," … "[Steven] Stamkos, dives every two seconds. You start to get a hatred on for guys like that. So, it will be interesting." — Bruce Boudreau

I know that conventional wisdom — and history — says that rivalries are born in the playoffs, but I think two coaches are trying to get a head start. Really one coach, Bruce Boudreau. Whether we play Tampa Bay in the playoffs remains to be seen, but at the end of our 6-game series it seemed clear that we weren’t just two division teams playing each other. We also weren’t just protecting our newly won 1 point lead in the Southeast. Nor were we just playing a team that had bested us in 2 of our 4 outings with shutouts. We were playing a team of “divers” and dangerous goal scorers.

Bruce Boudreau made as much clear in a very public way before the game. In a way that Capitals fans everywhere would hear and process. The normally magnanimous coach trash talked the other team so that his fans — and his team — could ratchet up the feelings. If this had been a home game, he might have been trying to sell seats though that’s not been an issue for more than a season. It was a road game for a team who was playing the 2nd night of a back-to-back and it was an opportunity to take a 4 game winning streak to 5 games. When your own fans are booing you in your own barn, you have to do something about it. Winning isn’t enough, because we were 5th in the East — in the middle of the play-off pack — and Capitals fans still booed the team at home. Bruce Boudreau is planting the seeds to grow another Penguin-like rivalry partly for business, but also to emphasize to fans who the object of scorn should be.

Boudreau has plenty of experience generating the hype required to grow rivalries. His long stints as coach in the ECHL taught him, at a grassroots level, how to quickly go on the offensive off the ice to develop rivalries and market his team. As coach of the Mississippi Sea Wolves, he said the team "hated the people of Louisiana" — Mississippi's rival state — and sold out every game that year. Normally, Bruce Boudreau can be heard praising a team’s strength or acting baffled by a team’s recent weaknesses always saying that we know they’re better than their record reflects. Yesterday, I think he took a page out of his past play book when he'd put on his marketing hat and talk trash to fill seats.

The initial, and partly on target, analysis of the Boudreau’s statement determined that he was working the refs. That by pointing out this tendency in some of Tampa Bay’s players, the referees would perhaps call penalties in the Capitals’ favor. I’m sure that this was partly the goal, not unlike a political campaign complaining about bad news coverage. But it seems to me that Boudreau already has success in games when he can point to lopsided officiating. By claiming publicly that officials buy what Tampa Bay is selling just seems like a way to set the refs against you. Clearly, it didn’t stop them from calling more penalties against the Capitals than against Tampa. Then again, perhaps the most important call of the game was the one that resulted in no penalty, but rather a called-back goal.

Reacting to the disallowed goal is where — and Boudreau could not have seen this coming — Guy Boucher begins to plant the seeds in Tampa for the rivalry that Boudreau started. Washington knows a thing or two about the psychological effect of a disallowed goal. We ended our play-off run largely on the dispiriting effect of one late in the game and we skidded for head-splitting 8 games after one in Dallas in December. They are nasty and hurtful. And, now, perhaps our biggest rival outside of Pennsylvania has had one at our hands. It’s clear from Boucher’s terse response to media today regarding the disallowed goal that he kind of blames Boudreau a little. Not just for his team, which he thinks manufactured the incidental contact, but also for his comments. The same comments that he had no comment for before the game. Perhaps Guy Boucher was trying be the nice guy, but there are no nice guys in rivalries.

Both teams could use a division rivalry, especially Tampa Bay. The Lightning rank 23rd in attendance capacity and 20th in average attendance. People salivate at the thought that we might one day be in the same division as Pittsburgh, but we have the makings of a rivalry right in our own division. Once again, it's megastar vs. megastar. Ovi vs. Stamkos. By the way, everyone who is scandalized by the way Bruce Boudreau spoke of Stamkos just might want to think about 2 things. 1. Stamkos is an adult and a professional and competitive athlete — I don't think he cares. 2. Do they observe the same religious reverence when discussing Ovechkin with his hard hitting play?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Or if they were around there, remember the way Vincent & St. Louis man-handled us in the playoffs in the early 2000s (I want to say in 02 & 03). But then we became the doormat of the division, and even though they had some great players, they eventually fell back to earth while we found our stride. So here's hoping both teams stay good for this to become a good rivalry.