To be the best, you've got to beat the best.
The Capitals fell short of that task in Sunday's 3-2 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, but they know they're right there.
"It was a huge test," Alex Ovechkin said after the game. "But how we played in the first period, I don't think any team can hang with us."
The Capitals dominated possession in the opening frame, holding a 16-6 shot advantage over the Blackhawks. Marcus Johansson, on the power play, put the Capitals on the board first, which has been a vital part of the team's success this season, owning the league's best winning percentage (28-1-0 entering Sunday) when scoring the game's first goal.
But the Blackhawks had something to say about that, shifting the momentum just 31 seconds later when Hart Trophy favorite Patrick Kane fooled Vezina Trophy favorite Braden Holtby with a highlight-reel goal, thanks to a heads-up pass by Trevor van Riemsdyk.
"When we got the lead, we sort of had them on their heels and gave it right back," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "To me, that was pretty key for them coming out of the first period even. For us, we put a lot of effort into that first period and you want to get a better result."
Jonathan Toews potted his 22nd goal of the year on the man advantage late in the second period to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead heading into the final frame, putting the Capitals in a position that doesn't faze them — they entered Sunday's contest with a 6-7-2 record when trailing after two periods, which is also the league's best winning percentage in that category.
Unfortunately for Washington, the same applied to the Blackhawks, who improved their stellar record to 63-0-2 when leading after two periods, a run that dates back to the start of the 2014-15 season, including playoffs.
"They're really good in the third period," Trotz said. "They've got their key, core people who have been in real pressure moments and they have really good D, especially their top-four. They're hard to score on. It's why they're such a good hockey team. But I thought we matched up well in a lot of areas, so that's encouraging for us."
Dennis Rasmussen registered, what turned out to be, the game-winning goal — the first game-winner of his career — at the 12:47 mark of the third period, stretching the Blackhawks' lead to 3-1.
T.J. Oshie, who knows the Blackhawks all too well from his days in St. Louis, committed an interference penalty shortly after, perhaps channeling his frustration the wrong way.
But the Capitals quickly steered the ship in the right direction, capitalizing on a 5-on-3 power play — which was actually a 6-on-3 advantage with an extra attacker on for Holtby — with under four minutes to play and nearly cashed in during the final minute with a late surge.
"We had to hold our breath a little bit there getting that last kill, and it was effective for us," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It turned out it could have been the differential getting to overtime."
Chicago and Washington met twice last season, both of which resulted in 3-2 victories for the Capitals. They were good then.
But the Blackhawks certainly notice they're getting even better.
"They’re deeper," Quenneville said when asked to compare this year's Capitals team to last year. "They have scoring on most of their lines. Some speed; they’re quicker than I thought. They have a good back end and a great goalie. That depth is showing through and their quickness and skill are very dangerous."
Despite the loss, the Capitals are only six points away from cracking 100 this season with still 20 games remaining.
The Capitals have run away with the Eastern Conference, building a large enough cushion that they can afford to take some nights off. It sounds familiar, but this team isn't like the previous ones that win the Presidents Trophy only to get bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They're structured, well-coached and resilient, like they showed again on Sunday during a valuable matchup against the Blackhawks.
"You see why their top players are top players," Trotz said. "I thought today had a little bit of a playoff feel, especially in the building, there was a lot of real good energy. It's a good experience for us. ... They're always a good measuring stick."
It was a treat to watch for 22,218 fans at the United Center, the largest crowd of the season.
It could be an even bigger treat if these two teams haven't seen the last of each other, with a potential Stanley Cup Final showdown a possibility in June.
If that happens, don't expect the Capitals to back down from that challenge.
"They have a solid group of guys out there that knows how to win," Ovechkin said. "If we're going to meet them in the future, we're going to know how to play and we're going to know exactly what we have to do."