Wednesday’s game had all the makings of a rivalry matchup. There were big hits and scrums after seemingly every whistle. Both teams combined for 58 penalty minutes including matching fighting majors and two misconduct penalties in a highly contentious affair.
Wednesday’s game between the Capitals and Nashville Predators, however, was not a matchup between two well-established rivals. It was a game between two teams from different conferences who have not played each other in over a year.
“They play fast, they play attacking and they play a heavy game,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “When you’re a team that wants to win, I don’t know if the Eastern Conference or the Western Conference matters. I think that’s your mindset going into the game. They wanted to come out of the break and get out on the right foot and they were ready to play.”
Hockey is a physical game and sometimes tension can grow over the course of 60 minutes. Maybe there is a big hit that players don’t like or maybe one team is getting outplayed so they push back physically. But on Wednesday the Caps and Predators were at each other’s throats from the drop of the puck to the final horn.
“I think it’s two teams that are very competitive and that’s how the game went,” Nashville head coach John Hynes said. “The players on both teams brought that out in each other.”
Wednesday’s game was the first meeting between these two teams since Jan. 29, 2020. Despite no real history, the first scrum broke out early in the first as Garnet Hathaway went on net on the attack and was shoved into the goal from behind by Michael McCarron. After the play, Hathaway came up swinging.
Hathaway seemed to be the focus of Nashville’s ire on the night. He was called for high-sticking, but drew a penalty four interference and two for roughing as he frequently found himself in the center of all the fisticuffs.
“I thought both teams were just going after it tonight and put a lot of effort in and I think that kind of led to the physicality,” Hathaway said.
There were some situational elements to the physical play. Nashville went down 3-0 in the first period. A mix of frustration and searching for a spark may have led to some extra shoves or punches getting thrown.
“It wasn’t the first period that we wanted, but I think when you look at the resilience, the mental and physical toughness we played with and we come back and tie the game,” Hynes said.
What also did not help was the inconsistent refereeing. When referees can feel a game getting out of hand, it is not uncommon for them to become heavy-handed with their penalties to try to take back control. But it soon became difficult to figure out who was getting a penalty and why. In one scrum, Nashville ended up with a power play as the referee doled out matching minors to the main agitators, Hathaway and Matt Benning, but then also pulled rookie Alex Alexeyev out of the mass of bodies and handed him two minutes as well.
When asked after the game why he was given a penalty, Alexeyev said, “No idea. Refs don’t like me.”
More than anything, however, Wednesday’s game pitted two teams against each other with similar styles.
Both Washington and Nashville like to play a heavy game and establish their physicality. That meant that big hits led to more big hits in response. Instead of the typical shoving we see in scrums, there were more punches being thrown as both teams tried to establish the physicality that is so central to their game.
“They’re hard on the puck,” Hathaway said. “In order for us to get our forecheck going, we have to be physical, we gotta slow down their D and we play pretty similar.”
“I think it’s both teams,” Hynes said. “We pride ourselves on being a real hard, tough team to play against, very competitive. We have a lot of competitive guys and I think they have the same. When the physicality got ramped up, I think both teams can play that way.”
This style benefitted both teams on the night. Nashville was able to fight their way back into the game and erase a 3-0 deficit. The normal deterrent for physical play is to make the other team pay on the power play, but Washington went 0-for-6 on the night so instead, they hit the Predators right back and sparked themselves to the 4-3 win.
It was the kind of game you expect to see between teams like the Caps and Penguins rather than the Caps and Predators. And it was also the type of game that makes you want to circle in the calendar the next time these teams are supposed to meet.