The highlight of Wednesday night's packed schedule was a showdown between the two teams sitting on top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers faced off in New York, with the Canadiens earning an emphatic 5-1 win in what felt very much like a statement game.
So on the morning after, we can all agree on who now deserves the title of the East's best team.
The Washington Capitals.
Well, OK, I might be getting a bit ahead of myself here. The Canadiens deserve full credit for Wednesday night's impressive win, even if it might have cost them Carey Price, who left after two periods with another apparent leg injury. And nobody's going to write off the Rangers based on one game, even though their fans must be at least a little worried about how easily the Habs' speedsters exposed them all night.
But while all this was going on in New York, the Capitals were earning a tidy 5-3 home win over the Winnipeg Jets, drawing within three points of the Rangers for first in the Metro, with Washington holding a game in hand. Both teams have been hot in November. And putting aside the (embarrassing, inexcusable) presence of the loser point, the Rangers woke up Thursday with a 16-6 record, while the Caps are 15-6. Not much to choose from there.
And at least a few other signs point to the Capitals being the better team. They hold a decisive edge in possession; they're tied for the league's third best score-adjusted Corsi mark at 53.5, while the Rangers are a distant 27th at 47.2. And while the Rangers sit atop the league with an unsustainable 106.0 PDO, indicating that they're not playing as well as their record indicates, the Caps are a more reasonable 100.9 (100 is the goal), suggesting they're far closer to the real deal. The flip side is that the Caps' recent schedule hasn't exactly been daunting, featuring wins over the Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs. They've lost to stronger teams such as the Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings, not to mention dropping a 5-2 decision to the Rangers back on Nov. 3, the only meeting of the season between the two teams. And of course, today there are New York fans thinking back to the past few years' worth of playoffs and muttering "scoreboard."
But it seems like the Capitals' bandwagon is growing. I make a weekly appearance on a Winnipeg radio station, and on Wednesday their first question was whether the Jets had any hope at all against the Caps. The Jets are a pretty decent team in their own right, but apparently a big chunk of their fan base was treating Wednesday night's game like a matchup against the '84 Oilers. That's the sort of cross-conference respect that not many Washington teams in recent memory have earned.
It's not hard to see why. Alex Ovechkin might be one of the best goal scorers ever. Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of this season's breakout stars. Nicklas Backstrom is his usual underrated self. (All three scored Wednesday night.) Braden Holtby belongs in the "league's best goalies" conversation. They have a very good blue line, led by John Carlson, a great coach, and a top-notch supporting cast. Sure, these are still the Capitals, so something terrible will probably happen. But the pieces are all there.
Is all that enough to declare the Caps the new top dog in the East? Probably not, especially with the Canadiens looking as good as they did Wednesday night. (The Habs and Caps have yet to play each other this season; their first meeting comes a week from today in Montreal.) But at the very least, it's probably time to stop talking about this as a two-team race.
And while we've only just passed the season's quarter mark, maybe I can be forgiven for looking ahead to settling this whole thing once and for all in the spring. Can we pencil you in for yet another Rangers-Caps matchup, with the winner getting the Habs in the conference finals? Hmm ...