Dominate possession. Rule in shots on goal. Make the opposition's best player look average, which in the case of Alex Ovechkin is extraordinarily hard to do. Score a timely goal in the third period. Win the game.
Since this is hardly a normal season in Hockeytown, Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at VerizonCenter despite following the formula to a T should not be considered surprising.
Nothing is anymore in this wacky season for the Red Wings.
They ran into Washington goalie Jose Theodore, who was stellar from start to finish in stopping 44 of 46 shots -- and despite becoming the first team in 2 1/2 seasons to hold Ovechkin without a shot, they couldn't hold a pair of one-goal leads, partly because their power play was anemic and partly because the Capitals were resilient.
Fourth-line center David Steckel scored the game-winner with 5:59 to play, just 46 seconds after Nicklas Backstrom tied the game with a power-play goal. Fourth-line winger Matt Bradley also scored a game-tying goal late in the second period.
Washington now has 68 points and holds the lead in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Buffalo.
"You have to rise to challenges and this week is about challenges," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, referring to Tuesday's game against Detroit and Thursday's visit to Pittsburgh. "In the end we were successful. I don't know if it looked that good. It wasn't a pretty win, but it was a gritty win and good teams have to find ways. People step up. It's not always the same guys. Good teams have 20 guys that at some point they can all step up and win you games."
The Wings outshot the Caps 46-23 and took a 2-1 lead when Brian Rafalski beat Theodore with a wide-open slap shot from the top of the right circle 11:07 into the third period.
However, with Todd Bertuzzi in the penalty box for tripping Mike Green, Backstrom danced his way through Brad Stuart and slid the puck through Chris Osgood's five-hole to tie the game with 6:45 to play.
Shortly after, Alexander Semin had his point shot blocked by Jonathan Ericsson, but the puck came to Steckel, who with Darren Helm draped on him somehow beat Osgood with a flick-of-the-wrist forehand.
The Capitals had to kill off Mike Knuble's tripping penalty with 4:53 to play in the game to preserve the lead and the win. The Red Wings were 0-for-5 on the power play.
"I thought we were tilting the rink, and when you do good things normally good things happen," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Tonight was one of those times that when you outplay the other team it doesn't go your way. That's the way it is."
If it weren't for Theodore, the Capitals could have been seeing red early. He turned aside 15 shots in the first period, including a couple from point-blank range and a few tip-in attempts. He also stoned Bertuzzi on a breakaway midway through the period.
"Without him it could have very well been 6-0 at the end of the first period," Boudreau said. "Today it was like men versus boys. They came out with a vengeance, and I'm sitting there thinking this is what Stanley Cup champions that are desperate can do. We were just fortunate our goalie was great in the first period."
The Wings finally broke through 4:17 into the second period thanks to a fantastic second effort from Dan Cleary. He missed a wide-open net on a rebound, but found the puck again at the goal line and whipped a backhander off of Theodore and into the net.
Theodore was hardly to blame as his defense let him down. Valtteri Filppula weaved his way through to the net to create the initial chance. Cleary had no one on him as he flailed at the rebound. He then had time to turn around and find the puck again at the goal line. By the time the puck went in the net, Tom Poti was on his knees in front of the crease and Theodore was on his back.
The Capitals erased that forgettable series when they caught the Wings napping late in the period and Bradley tied it at 18:05. With the Wings changing, Green sent the puck all the way up the ice to Boyd Gordon, who raced into the Caps zone. As Brett Lebda closed in on him near the left-wing half boards, Gordon slotted the puck to Bradley, who was knifing through the Wings' zone.
Jonathan Ericsson was slow on the backcheck and Bradley got behind him, settled the puck and waited long enough to get Osgood to move. With his momentum guiding him to the left, Bradley used his right-handed shot to roof the puck over Osgood's catching glove for his eighth goal of the season and first in 10 games.
"I think he (Osgood) thought I was going to go to my backhand so he kind of cheated across," Bradley said. "I was able to get it up and it was a great pass from Gordo."
Even though Rafalski scored midway through the third period to give the Red Wings a 2-1 lead, Boudreau looked at Bradley's goal as a major turning point. Instead of facing a deficit after 40 minutes knowing they'd been thoroughly outplayed, the Capitals went into intermission thinking they needed to play well for only 20 minutes to win a game they probably had no business winning.
"We're resilient," Boudreau said. "We also need to know that we need to play much better if we want to win the whole thing. I thought that was the best team we played all year and I'm shocked that they're in ninth place right now."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org