While the NHL is in suspended animation due to the ongoing labor dispute, the Capitals-Penguins rivalry is still alive and well on the AHL level.
The top affiliates of the Capitals and Penguins - the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins - have their home arenas less than 100 miles apart, and while the two clubs are natural geographic rivals and play a dozen games against each other in the regular season, the two teams have also borne witness to some of the talent and leadership that shapes the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry in the league above.
Capitals radio voice John Walton - who called Hershey games from 2004 until 2011 - definitely sees a parallel between the NHL and AHL level of the rivalry, but says the proximity between the Pennsylvania cities adds a different twist.
"What adds to the mix at the AHL level is the fact that the two teams are only separated by 90 miles," Walton said. "Fans travel to both cities, flagship radio stations overlap a little bit. There's certainly not a lot of love lost between the two."
There's also some history, as well. Since the Capitals began their affiliation with the Bears before the 2005-06 season, the two AHL clubs have met in the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons - with the winner of the series going to the Calder Cup Finals four times.
Current Bears radio voice Scott Stuccio has seen both sides of the rivalry, having been the Penguins' radio voice from 2007 to 2011 before joining Hershey to call games last season. And while the clashes between the two NHL franchises have long been on the radar of hockey fans across North America, the battles between the two teams' top affiliates have produced some terrific hockey on their own.
"In 2006, you see the Bears and Caps in the Calder Cup, the remarkable run they had that year," Stuccio recalled from the radio booth before Saturday's clash between the two clubs. "The '09 team, [the Penguins] had a 2-3-2 that we played that year because of building issues. [The Penguins] started in Hershey for the first two, we had three back in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and the home team won every game, and so we went up 3-2. The only test the Bears had in that run and Michal Neuvirth came up with his best in Games 6 and 7 with 3-0 shutouts. I looked at the guy and said that is something special right there. Semyon Varlamov, the Capitals had incredible goaltending back then and it was tough to get by them.
"That's what I really remember back then, it was so difficult to beat the Bears in the playoffs. The regular season was good battles, and those Bears teams knew how to turn it up in the playoffs and become almost unbeatable."
For Walton, the end of that 2009 playoff series against the Penguins - with back-to-back shutouts by Neuvirth - was special.
"Hershey was up 2-0 in the best of seven, lost the next three in Wilkes-Barre, but Michal Neuvirth slammed the door," Walton recalled. "He became the only goalie in AHL history to earn shutouts in both a Game 6 and a Game 7 of the same playoff series, and the Pens were done.
"Hershey won the Calder Cup over Manitoba a few weeks later."
Of course, while the Bears are celebrating their 75th anniversary season this year, the rivalry on the AHL level really began when Wilkes-Barre was given an AHL franchise in 1999, and the two teams battled for the 2001 Western Conference crown back when Hershey was Colorado's farm club. But once the Avalanche left Chocolatetown and the Capitals moved in, the stage was set on the AHL level for what would come to the big stage later.
"Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey, that [rivalry] goes back to 1999 when the Penguins came into the AHL and had to spend a long time on the road before their building was done. But once it was finished, man, oh man, the rivalry was there."
"It definitely accelerated when Hershey became Washington's AHL affiliate after being associated with Colorado ... It really accelerated and really ramped up. It's been there, I think the AHL rivalry has been there a little bit longer."
Of course, the rivalry produced two of the main figures in the recent clashes on the NHL level, as both former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and current Penguins Dan Bylsma got a taste of the rivalry on the AHL level.
"Dan [Bylsma], looking at a rivalry, you always see on his level of preparation on an AHL game day between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey, you could always see the fists clench a little more tightly, a little more we gotta get these guys look on his face," Stuccio recalled. "It's there, they bring it out in their practices, they ramped up the practices just a little bit more when the games are that close. He definitely bled the rivalry, for sure."
For Boudreau, there certainly was no love lost for the Penguins at the AHL level, either.
"Every game was important to Bruce, but I always felt the rivalry games were more so," Walton recalled. "He was never shy about expressing his dislike for the Penguins publicly, especially during our pregame radio interviews."
Walton also recalled a time when one of the Bears' stars, Chris Bourque, pleaded with the Bears staff not to join their AHL rivals.
At the start of the 2009-10 season, Bourque was claimed by Pittsburgh to join the NHL with the Penguins. But after 20 games, he was sent down to the AHL. That gave the Capitals a chance to claim him back, and Borque desperately wanted to rejoin the Bears, according to Walton who relayed the story in an interview for Red Rising.
"When he got claimed, and he was going to the NHL - it's unfortunate it didn't happen [in Washington] - but that's the way it works," Walton said. "When Pittsburgh put him on waivers, there was a phone call from Chris to our trainer, Dan Stock, and it was relayed to me - and I can hear it in a Boston accent - ‘Tell me they're not going to send me to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton!'
"Because it's one thing to be [in Pittsburgh] for the NHL, but he did not want to go [to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] - that was something when he came back to Hershey."
The Bears went on a tear that year with Bourque back in the fold, winning their second consecutive Calder Cup that year, thanks in part to Bourque's 27-point postseason.
Saturday night at Giant Center, a near-capacity crowd of 10,082 came out to see the two teams battle, and Hershey came away with a 4-1 win in a game that featured 84 penalty minutes - including a pair of fights after the final buzzer.
After a slow start to the contest, things heated up late in the first period when Bears captain Boyd Kane barreled down the ice past Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and then delivered a hard hit in the corner Bortuzzo's defensive partner Philip Samuelsson - son of former Pens defenseman Ulf - in the corner. Kane was assessed a boarding call on the play, and that set the stage as things got chippy in the second.
Hershey's Matt Clackson and Wilkes-Barre's Joe Morrow dropped the gloves 3:55 into the middle frame, and Bortuzzo and the Bears' Steve Olesky got sent to the box after the bout for yelling at each other from the team benches.
Less than a minute later, Capitals prospect Dmitry Orlov was hit in the corner by the Penguins' Bobby Farnham, and after charging was called on the play, Jeff Taffe challenged him and those two dropped the gloves.
After some more chippiness in the third, the two ended the evening with a pair of fights coming after the final buzzer.
While the Bears have been a bit erratic to start the year, going 6-8-1-0 after Sunday's loss to Syracuse, half of their wins have come against their rivals with a perfect 3-0 mark this season.
"The games [against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] have been so close, could have gone either way," Braden Holtby said after the contest. "We had a great crowd tonight, it was a big help, and we always want to play games against Wilkes."
Like their parent clubs did two years ago, the two AHL teams also will get a chance to take their rivalry outdoors in January, as Hershey hosts the Penguins in the Outdoor Classic at Hersheypark Stadium. While the Bears played against the Adirondack Phantoms at Citizens' Bank Park in Philadelphia last January, it will be a chance for Hershey to play in the shadow of Hersheypark against their rivals from up Interstate 81.
"It's the second year in a row for Hershey, it's a great venue for it," Stuccio said. "The two teams here, I know Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was trying to get an outdoor game to host of their own, and I'm sure they'll have it someday, but to have it at the stadium outside coming up in January - and to have the alumni go at it the day before - it's going to provide for a really nice weekend."
For Stuccio, he enjoys having seen both sides of the rivarly.
"I actually love seeing both sides. I'm from Wilkes-Barre, that's where my mom and dad are," Stuccio said. "To be on this side [in Hershey], I wouldn't trade it for anything.
"This is such a great, great hockey town, and to be able to see 75 years and to be a part of this milestone is incredible. My first year, last year, not only did we see 12 games against [the Penguins] in the regular season, but 7 additional games in the preseason and playoffs combined. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me' - it was a quarter of the games we played last year.
"The Bears had so much trouble against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year in the regular season and to pick it up at the end. It was tough to dig out of the 2-0 hole. They came back and forced that Game 5. It was fun, fun hockey to watch between these two teams, Game 1 of the regular season or Game 76, it's a playoff feel."