RALEIGH — When Kirk Muller was asked Monday morning about the rivalry between the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, he didn't have much of an answer.
Going into only his third game against the Caps as coach of the Hurricanes, he shouldn't be expected to have one.
The truth of the matter is there never has been much of a rivalry, not the way one might expect given the proximity of the two teams and the frequency visiting fans end up in the other team's building.
Over the years, the Hurricanes and Capitals have had a few on-ice flare-ups. Jason Doig's knee-to-knee hit on Kevyn Adams in 2004 probably engendered the most enmity, including a NHL fine for Craig Adams' throat-slashing gesture directed toward Doig.
Alex Ovechkin was actually suspended for two games in 2009 for a similar hit on Tim Gleason. Neither incident lingers as much of a flashpoint.
They've gone head-to-head for a playoff spot a few times, including the final days of the 2007-08 season, when a Capitals win in Washington all but settled the matter. Yet there's never been any more spit and vinegar in this matchup than any of the others in the Southeast Division, even if Derek Joslin and Matt Hendricks did their best to inject some Monday with a running feud of repeated fisticuffs.
It's an odd situation. There should me more bile in this rivalry than there is. It's hard not to get the sense that Hurricanes fans are more interested in games against Buffalo or Boston or New Jersey or Montreal, teams the Hurricanes have faced in the playoffs over the years.
(Which makes last season's missed opportunity all the more painful: If the Hurricanes hadn't lost on the season's final day, they would have faced the Capitals in the first round, which might have changed the dynamic forever.)
Maybe a playoff chase will do the trick, because if Monday's convincing 5-0 win is any barometer, the Hurricanes are going to give it everything they have to chase down the Capitals and the rest of the Southeast.
They've been playing solid hockey for more than a month now, sometimes without the results to show for it, but they got all the results they could have wanted Monday, and on national TV.
A Justin Faulk power-play goal to bolster his burgeoning Calder Trophy campaign?
Check. An Eric Staal short-handed breakaway? Check. A beautiful end-to-end, five-man sequence that ended with a pinpoint pass from Brandon Sutter to Andreas Nodl for the goal? Check. Another goal from the Staal-Jiri Tlusty combo? Yeah, that too.
The Hurricanes spent the first couple months of the season relying on Cam Ward, hoping for the best and delivering the worst. Now, with Ward out injured, they're playing well enough that it doesn't matter who's in net. (Justin Peters, to his credit, is playing the best hockey of his NHL career. He was fantastic Monday.)
Can the Hurricanes pass seven teams, make up a seven-point gap and make the playoffs?
Can they move from fifth to first in the Southeast, which would require only two additional points? Maybe they can after all.
To have any chance at the playoffs, the Hurricanes are going to have to go something like 15-4-3. In the words of Rocco Lampone, "difficult, not impossible," especially considering the Hurricanes are 11-6-5 over their past 22 games.
If they can do that, they might end up knocking the Capitals out of the picture in the process. And that might just turn this would-be rivalry into one that actually is.