They had won four games in a row and were playing a New York Islanders team that had lost seven in a row.
After one period, the Ducks had managed a single shot. After two, they were still locked in a scoreless tie.
But after three, they were 1-0 winners after Saku Koivu scored the game's only goal at 3:40 of the third. The Ducks' five-game winning streak ties Washington for the longest current streak in the NHL.
"For sure, we didn't play our best and we didn't get the shots we wanted," Koivu said, acknowledging the Ducks lacked their usual jump a day after an overtime win at San Jose.
"Even when you don't play your best, you try to find your way to win games," he said.
"To be able to keep the streak alive felt good," said McElhinney, who got a crucial assist from Ducks forward Corey Perry in the third when Perry dived to the ice in the slot to knock away a shot by a wide-open Bruno Gervais with his stick.
"It's nice to see a star player getting in there and helping out like that," McElhinney said.
The Ducks didn't manage their first shot on goal until less than two minutes remained in the first period, and the crowd of 14,393 greeted the fact the Ducks wouldn't go into the dressing room with a goose egg with a sarcastic cheer.
In the second, the Islanders put the puck in the Ducks' net, but it was no goal because the Islanders' James Wisniewski knocked it in with a clear high stick.
The zeros on the scoreboard didn't budge until Koivu did the honors.
He started a rush on the other end, then got the puck to Teemu Selanne and rejoined the play to take a pass from Cam Fowler high in the slot and put it past goaltender Dwayne Roloson with a rising one-timer.
The goal was Koivu's fourth in the past four games, and his sixth point.
The game also marked the return of Duck defenseman Luca Sbisa, who was recalled from minor league Syracuse and made an impression with physical, defense-minded play, earning kudos from Coach Randy Carlyle.
The Islanders got a power-play opportunity late in the game after Lubomir Visnovsky accidentally knocked the puck over the glass in the defensive zone for an automatic delay-of-game penalty. But the Ducks turned that one away, one of six altogether.
"It was great that we held them to 14 shots, but it doesn't really matter if you lose, 1-0," said Wisniewski, a former Duck. "We could have held them to three shots, but if they score one goal and we didn't score any, it doesn't really matter."