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The rivalry that never was is finally born, as a playoff series turns nasty

Carolina Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov talks for the first time about his fight with Alex Ovechkin: ‘I am not superhero’

Svechnikov who was sidelined this week with a concussion following the fight with Ovechkin talks with the media, he hopes to play in game six.
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Svechnikov who was sidelined this week with a concussion following the fight with Ovechkin talks with the media, he hopes to play in game six.

It has been nasty and at times ugly, even by playoff standards. The brutality of the Alex Ovechkin-Andrei Svechnikov fight was in keeping with tenor of the ongoing battle on the ice, replete with hits to the head and high-sticks and cross-checks and nasty collisions with the boards.

Somehow, the one attempt-to-injure penalty in the series was later rescinded, and the NHL has yet to intervene with any supplementary discipline, even as Washington Capitals coach Todd Reirden practically demanded it, all but accusing Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele of deliberately attempting to injure T.J. Oshie with an awkward but tame bump from behind. By the standards of this series, the contact was gentle, even if the result was unfortunately catastrophic.

There never has been much of a rivalry between these teams, despite their geographic proximity, in part because when the Hurricanes were good, the Capitals were typically bad, and vice versa. Other rivalries grew out of playoff series and came and went, fading with time and roster turnover, but the Hurricanes and Capitals never seemed to get much traction.

They’re both good at the same time now, tied at two games going into Game 5 of this heated playoff series late Saturday night. And there is traction. There will be a rivalry going forward, no matter what happens over the next few days.

“It’s not more than I expected, but I feel like I’ve watched a lot of the playoff series and some have that element and ours – maybe it’s just because I’m in it, but it feels like it’s definitely one of the more physical series I’ve been watching,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “And that’s OK.”

Watch a time-lapse as Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour talks about the fight between the Canes' Andrei Svechnikov and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin Monday, April 15, 2019. Svechnikov was injured and did not return.

The implications of this series will certainly linger, and not merely as long as Ovechkin and Svechnikov are on the ice at the same time. Oshie is out indefinitely, which appears to mean not only this series but longer if the Capitals advance, and the Hurricanes have their own growing list of grievances, including a Tom Wilson hit on Justin Faulk that was delivered the same distance from the boards and with far greater force than Foegele on Oshie. Faulk was turned more sideways to the hit and was able to brace himself, but hit the boards harder than Oshie, who lost his balance and went in at a dangerous, shoulder-first angle.

This sort of thing isn’t uncommon in the playoffs, and varies widely depending on perspective – for every Scott Stevens who becomes a villain here, there’s a Kevyn Adams booed in Montreal for his high-stick on Saku Koivu – but even by those standards, this series has been unusually rough.

Justin Williams talks about his team being outmatched in Game 5. The Capitals beat the Hurricanes, 6-0.

Some of that is endemic to the Hurricanes trying to match the physical edge of a team that dresses Wilson, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Most of that is just organic to the series and what has played out on the ice. But it has turned nasty even off the ice, where Foegele (and his girlfriend) were harassed on social media after his hit on Oshie.

“There’s obviously been some unfortunate events that have happened in this series and unfortunately in hockey, that does happen,” said Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, only two years removed from the Capitals’ locker room. “But at the same time both teams are not afraid to hit, throw the body around. A lot of it has to do with how we’re built to play. We’re both built to play physical and aggressive on the forecheck.”

Watch a time-lapse as Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour talks about the fight between the Canes' Andrei Svechnikov and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin Monday, April 15, 2019. Svechnikov was injured and did not return.

It’s the playoffs. Some of this stuff happens, in any series, even if there seems to be more of it in this one. And the first round tends to be the rougher anyway, when teams have the most energy and the fewest accumulated injuries.

But impossible there won’t be long-term fall-out from this series over the next few years, no matter who ends up winning. Whatever rivalry should have developed between these teams over the past 20 years and didn’t, it’s there now. And will be for a while.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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