Just about any way you cut it, the Washington Capitals are, well, average.
They've won half of the 28 games they've played. The Capitals have scored 83 goals and given up 82, including shootout goals.
They're a bit better on home ice than on the road, but not by much. Their 9-7 record at Verizon Center doesn't strike fear in opponents.
Washington's power play is still good enough for fourth best in the NHL, but it is trending downward. Its penalty kill, once the league's best, is now smack in the middle.
If they didn't have shootouts (6-2), the Capitals would be desperate. As of Dec. 5, their point total (30) is closer to last place in the Metropolitan Division (New York Islanders, 21) as it is to first place (Pittsburgh Penguins, 41).
Head coach Adam Oates said his team needed to win more faceoffs, put the puck in better spots to sustain offensive pressure, make better power-play reads and even complete simple tasks such as clearing the puck from the defensive zone.
"We're just looking for consistency over 80 games," Oates said after practice Dec. 6, "because hopefully it builds in the right direction."
The Capitals have had trouble building momentum through the first third of the season, but they'll get another shot this weekend. The Nashville Predators visit Verizon Center Dec. 7, and the Capitals play the following night at the New York Rangers.
Oates said the team's start against Carolina was its best first period of the season. The Hurricanes won, 4-1, but the Capitals had several early scoring opportunities, including Jason Chimera's miss from inside the crease.
Similar efforts would serve them well against the Predators (13-13-3) and the Rangers (15-14). Scoring first is a strong predictor of success for the Capitals, Predators and Rangers.
That's generally true of many teams, but consider: the Predators have won twice this season after trailing 1-0; and are 11-1-2 after scoring first.
The difference is even more stark with the Rangers: 14-2 when they score first; 1-12 when they fall behind 1-0.
Only San Jose and Anaheim have .500-or-better records when trailing first.
The Capitals have won 31.3 percent of the 16 games during which they allowed the first goal. They are 9-3 when they score first.
Oates showed his players video of the first 30 minutes of the Carolina game in a bid to highlight the positives.
"That's a game where if we score first, they're on their heels," Oates said, "and we had plenty of opportunities to do it."
Capitals players were able to put the puck in the right spots in the offensive zone.
"Because of that, we had some great chances," Oates said. "Chimmer misses one, second shift of the game, from an inch. If that goes in, we feel better about ourselves, and we get on a little bit of a different roll."
Oates described Nashville's play as disciplined.
"They have a system," he said. "They're disciplined with it, and they never vary from it. I would like teams to say that about us, that we stick to the game plan no matter what. Right now, Boston is a team that I think would come to mind when you say that. They don't vary from their system."
Braden Holtby is expected to start against the Predators. Typically, Oates splits goaltending duties on back-to-back games, but Michal Neuvirth said after practice that he probably was not ready.
Neuvirth hurt himself Nov. 29 when he stepped on a puck during pregame warm-ups.
"It's getting better every day," Neuvirth said.
Philipp Grubauer, who was recalled from Hershey, stopped all nine shots he faced against Carolina. He played the third period after Holtby allowed four goals. A 22-year-old German, Grubauer has played in three NHL games for 104 total minutes.
"We'll see how the games go," Oates said of possibly using Grubauer. "Sometimes you have no choice."
The Predators have been leaning on 22-year-old goalie Marek Mazanec, who posted two shutouts in November and was named NHL Rookie of the Month. But Mazanec allowed four goals to Carolina Dec. 6 and was pulled after two periods, just as Holtby was when the Hurricanes visited Dec.3.
Veteran netminder Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, is on injured reserve. Carter Hutton, who has played in 12 NHL games, has been backing up Mazanec.
Meanwhile, the Capitals expect to see nemesis Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in Madison Square Garden. Lundqvist shut out the Capitals Oct. 16 during a 2-0 New York victory. Lundqvist has faced 30 or more shots during five of his 21 starts this season.
WARD ON MANDELA
Nelson Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at the age of 95, inspired generations of people across the globe after spending 27 years in prison under apartheid in South Africa. After his release, he became the nation's first black president in 1994.
Joel Ward, whose parents emigrated from Barbados to Canada, said there were many lessons to be learned from Mandela's story.
"What he said about sport was one, how sports can impact our lives in such a positive way," Ward said.
Mandela thought sports could bridge racial gaps and inspire young people who have little in life, like many black South African children. Ward wears No. 42 on his jersey in honor of Jackie Robinson, who was the first black player in Major League Baseball.
Ward said he had wanted to travel to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, but hadn't made it.
"It's on my bucket list, for sure," he said.