The Washington Capitals have been talking a lot lately about winning ugly, grinding, low-scoring games -- playoff-style games.
But a potential problem for the Caps, even as they inch their way up the Metropolitan Division standings, is that they've yet to deliver against top opponents -- the types of teams they would meet during the playoffs. Washington (10-8-1) has one victory during six games against teams with winning records (as of Nov. 12).
Overall, half of the Caps' wins have come at the end of regulation. They've relied on shootouts for four victories, while one win was in overtime. Alex Ovechkin's 14th goal this season gave the Caps a 4-3 overtime win against Columbus (6-10-1) Nov. 12.
Among the 14 teams with at least 10 wins (through Nov. 12), the Caps had the fewest regulation and overtime victories. They've relinquished third-period leads during six games.
Translation: They're not putting teams away.
"We feel like we've been playing well over the past seven or so games," defenseman John Carlson said after practice Nov. 13. "It's a mixture of things that we do, breakdowns that we create, maybe a little bit of bad luck here and there. We can certainly get better."
Head coach Adam Oates downplayed the significance of the team's 1-4-1 record against teams with winning records.
"I don't think we've really played that many yet, to call it a sample size," Oates said Nov. 13.
Records are not a complete measure of a team's abilities, he said. Oates called the Caps' victory against Columbus a dog fight and pointed to Tampa Bay's 2-1 shootout victory Nov. 12 against host Montreal as more evidence. The Lightning were without their top scorer, Steven Stamkos, who is injured.
"I never would have bet them to win that game," Oates said. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given night."
The Blue Jackets were on the verge of an upset, as well. The Capitals led, 2-1, midway through the third period, but allowed two goals during a three-minute span. Washington's third line, a consistent force all season, bailed them out when center Mikhail Grabovski snapped a wrist shot over the left shoulder of Sergei Bobrovsky with 1:45 remaining during regulation.
"It's tough sledding out there," Oates said after the game. "A little frustrating at times, because we had easier plays than we're making, which is maybe mental fatigue, but obviously to figure out a way to get it done is still a good thing, as well."
So far, though, the Capitals haven't gotten it done against most of the top teams they've faced.
Washington beat Minnesota (shootout), but lost regulation games to Chicago, Vancouver, and twice to Colorado. They lost a shootout at Phoenix, where they squandered a two-goal lead during the third period. They worked hard to scratch out a tying goal in Colorado, but fell behind 28 seconds later.
"In Colorado, even though we got down by one, I thought we still had some chances to really turn the game around," winger Joel Ward said after the Columbus game. "We've just been coming up a little bit short in that aspect."
The solution, Ward said, is more grinding, which is how Washington came back against the Blue Jackets.
"It's kind of like playoff hockey," Ward said. "You need four lines that are kind of grinding. Ask our defense. When guys keep dumping it in, chipping it in … guys tend to break down slowly. You'll get some more chances like that. The more you sustain pressure in their end, the more vulnerable they are to break down."
The Capitals' regulation victories came against Edmonton (twice), Columbus (Oct. 19), Philadelphia and the New York Islanders. The shootout wins were against Calgary, Winnipeg, Florida and Minnesota.
The 3-2 shootout victory against Minnesota Nov. 7 featured the kind of gritty hockey Oates has said the team should be playing. The Caps scored early, but later trailed, 2-1. They kept plugging, and with 3:08 remaining, Marcus Johansson scored to tie the game.
"The league is getting harder and harder to score 5-on-5, and you've got to fight through that," Oates said.
Oates said it came down to attitude, being mentally ready to grind out a 1-0 victory.
"You're not going to score five every night," he said. "No way."
The Capitals are 0-7 when they score fewer than three goals.
During six games, the Capitals have given away third-period leads. They lost three of those games (Chicago, Vancouver; Phoenix in shootout) and won three (Winnipeg, Florida in shootouts; Columbus in overtime).
The Capitals play at slumping Detroit Nov. 15, before home games against St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Montreal. The Blues, Penguins and Canadiens are all among the NHL's top 10 in goals-against average.
"We have enough confidence in here that we know we can beat anyone on any night," Carlson said. "I definitely think we're one of the most dangerous teams. We've got great forwards and a great goalie and certainly some good defense. We just need to put it together."