From Comcast SportsNetPITTSBURGH (AP) -- Rashard Mendenhall's surgically repaired right knee feels so good, the Steelers running back isn't even wearing so much as an ace bandage over it when he practices."I put a sleeve on for a day and didn't like it," Mendenhall said. "I feel better without anything on it."The 25-year-old hardly looked like he needed one on Wednesday. Asked by coach Mike Tomlin to knock Mendenhall around a little bit, Pittsburgh's defense obliged by getting a couple of shots in during their one padded workout of the week.How it'd feel?"It was cool," Mendenhall said. "I was all good."And -- the Steelers hope -- their running game will be too.Though it's still uncertain whether Mendenhall will be ready to play on Sunday when the Steelers (1-1) travel to Oakland (0-2), there's little doubt he's inching closer to a return barely nine months removed from surgery to repair the ACL he tore in last year's regular season finale against Cleveland."He looked fast," offensive guard Willie Colon said. "Everything I saw was a good sign."Pittsburgh could certainly use a healthy Mendenhall to help take some of the pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.The Steelers rank 30th in the NFL in rushing with just 141 yards through the season's first two weeks and are averaging an anemic 2.6 yards per carry. Nearly 20 percent of their 54 running plays have gone for negative yardage, though Roethlisberger and one of the league's top receiving corps has helped Pittsburgh control the ball for more than 35 minutes a game behind some third-down heroics.Roethlisberger, however, knows his team won't continue to convert 56 percent (19 of 34) of its third downs if something doesn't start happening on the ground."We don't want to do that all year," Roethlisberger said. "I can tell you that much."Mendehall's presence means they might not have to.He narrowly missed his third straight 1,000-yard season last fall due in part to a slightly decreased workload and an awkward step against Cleveland on New Year's Day when he tried to plant while trying to cut back near the sideline only to have his knee buckle.Mendenhall didn't even travel to Denver for the playoff game, where replacement Isaac Redman rushed for a respectable 121 yards in a 29-23 overtime loss to the Broncos. Though he underwent surgery shortly after getting hurt, Mendenhall has been careful not to put a definite timetable on his rehab. Still, he's grown increasingly more active in practice over the last two weeks.Asked if he believes he can play on Sunday against the Raiders, Mendenhall shrugged his shoulders and said "possibly," while remaining vague about what exactly it will take for him to get cleared."When there's a green light," Mendenhall said, "that's what I'm preparing for."Having Mendenhall's familiar No. 34 in the backfield would certainly be a welcome sight for the Steelers. Redman has done little through two games. A quarter of his 23 carries have ended with Redman getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Jonathan Dwyer has been more consistent -- rushing for 71 yards on 21 carries -- but is dealing with a turf toe that relegated him to watching practice in sweats on Wednesday.New Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley promised to develop a physical presence in the running game that he used so successfully during his two-plus year tenure as coach in Kansas City. It hasn't quite happened yet and Tomlin acknowledged it's an area that needs some work."We have got a desire to have balance, to be able to attack people in ways that we desire," Tomlin said. "Over time we better be continually moving toward that. Obviously there's been somewhat of an imbalance to this point, but that's just eight quarters of football."At times, the Steelers appear to be experimenting with schemes. They pitched wide to the lumbering Redman on the second play of the game last Sunday against the New York Jets only to see him get slammed for a seven-yard loss. On third-and-9 on the same possession, they converted by sending wide receiver Antonio Brown on an end around.Mendenhall described the mixed results on the ground the result of growing pains. Pittsburgh ran the ball on 17 of their 27 first-down plays against New York in an attempt to set a tone, though center Maurkice Pouncey doesn't think predictability is a problem."Whatever coach calls we've got to go out and execute," he said. "It doesn't matter if he calls a triple reverse, we've got to go out and block it."Besides, the season is still young and Mendenhall believes the offense is still searching for its identity."I think we're still getting in the groove of things with Haley," he said. "We're still shaping it."NOTES:In addition to Dwyer, linebacker James Harrison (knee), safety Troy Polamalu (calf), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (groin), tight end Heath Miller (abdomen) and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (knee) and Mike Wallace (groin) did not practice ... Tackle Mike Adams (back) and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (knee) were limited.
On Monday, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz dedicated a portion of practice to working on the shootout.
A couple of reasons: The Caps haven’t been good at them this season and that extra point might just come in handy given how tight the standings have become.
On Thursday night, that extra work paid off in a pivotal 2-1 shootout win over the visiting Blue Jackets.
With the win, the Caps improved to 2-5 in games decided by the skills competition. More important, though, it helped Washington grow its lead over Pittsburgh and Columbus to two and three standings points, respectively, with nine games left to play.
“Winning in a shootout, which we have not been good at all year, Holts was the guy,” Trotz said, referring to Braden Holtby, who had not won a shootout in five tries. “That was great. That extra point might be huuuge. It might be absolutely huge.”
Of the practice, Trotz said: “It’s paying dividends. We’re working on parts of our game that we need to make sure that we are good at.”
The Caps’ leading scorer and penalty shot specialist, T.J. Oshie, scored the only goal in the shootout. In the 2014 Sochi Games, Oshie beat Bobrovsky four times in penalty shots to lift the United States over Russia. Three times he went 5-hole.
“I thought about it for five seconds, maybe,” Oshie said Thursday night. “I was going to come in and do something different from what I remembered. I saw something different and decided to go 5-hole.”
Oshie added: “I felt pretty fortunate, and luckily that’s the only one we needed because Holts shut the door on the other end.”
Holtby, meantime, made saves on both of the Columbus attempts that were on goal. Another missed the net.
Afterward, the veteran goalie credited the extra work on Monday. In that practice session, Trotz asked Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Kevin Shattenkirk, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Justin Williams to take two shots each on Holtby, who was watched closely by the coaching staff.
“We worked on it a little bit,” Holtby said. “It’s something that I try not to fiddle around with too much because I don’t want it creeping into my regular game because a breakaway is totally different than a shootout. But with the race getting pretty close, [in case we had] another one, we worked on it a couple of days ago in practice to try and get a little better at that for the stretch run.”
And they did get a little better at it. And just at the right time.
While the Caps established themselves as the top team in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to keep pace with them leading to a three-team race for supremacy of the division. On Thursday, the Caps managed to give themselves a little breathing room.
Washington defeated Columbus 2-1 in a shootout. While it was not the "four-point" game the Caps perhaps had hoped, it still extended their lead over the Blue Jackets by a point.
The Ottawa Senators also did Washington a favor on Thursday by downing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ironically enough, the score of that game was also 2-1 in a shootout.
RELATED: Caps win goalie duel in shootout
While all three Metropolitan leaders did manage to get points on the night, Washingotn was the only one to get two, meaning they extended their lead over both teams by one. It also means neither Columbus or Pittsburgh registered a regulation or overtime win (ROW). ROW is the first tiebreaker in the standings which could prove critical in such a tight race.
After Thursday's games, here is what the top three of the Metropolitan looks like:
1. Washington: 48-17-8, 104 points, 46 ROW
2. Pittsburgh: 46-17-10, 102 points, 43 ROW
3. Columbus: 47-19-7, 101 points, 45 ROW
With eight games remaining, that's not much breathing room for the Caps. Considering, however, that Washington could have left Thursday tied for second in the division, they certainly will take Thursday's result.
MORE CAPITALS: Capitals are trying to get their game to an elite level