Pettinger's Shots Close, Goals Afar

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A single moment epitomized Matt Pettinger's goal-scoring slump Friday afternoon in Philadelphia.

The Washington Capitals winger raced into the Flyers' zone, snagged a drop pass from teammate Brooks Laich, sidestepped Daniel Briere, then zeroed in on his target. With no one between him and goaltender Martin Biron, Pettinger whipped a wrist shot toward the net. Biron, though, got just enough of his catching glove on the short-handed attempt to send the puck hurtling harmlessly out of play.

Like so many of Pettinger's scoring opportunities this season, the difference between celebrating a goal and skating away empty-handed was separated by about an inch.

"I can't put a finger on it," he said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "That's the frustrating thing. Last year, that chance in Philly would have gone in."

In 23 games this season, Pettinger has a goal and two assists, a precipitous and unexpected drop from 16 goals last season and 20 the season before while playing on the second line and receiving regular minutes on the power play. He has been used in a more defensive role this season, but that's not the sole reason he has scored only once.

"I'm getting my shots and getting my chances," said Pettinger, who scored 10 times in his first 23 games a year ago. "But for whatever reason, the puck is just not going in. I keep asking myself, 'What am I doing differently?'

"Was I going to net harder? No. Was I playing more physical? No. Was I taking more shots? No."

Pettinger, in fact, ranks fifth on the team in shots on goal with 47, which is ahead of the pace he set in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

Interim coach Bruce Boudreau scratched the 27-year-old veteran from Monday's lineup against Buffalo. It marked the first time since October 2005 that Pettinger found himself sitting out because of a coach's decision, though he's expected to return to the lineup tonight against the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center.

"Sometimes it's good to watch a game and come back with a newfound energy," Boudreau said. "As a player, he's thinking, 'Oh, I've lost it, I'm no good anymore.' My job as a coach is to keep supporting him, tell him he's still a good player, boost his confidence and not let him think, 'Woe is me.' "

Pettinger's scoring slump coincides with a teamwide offensive downturn for the Capitals, who are mired in last place in the NHL and are averaging just 2.38 goals per game (27th of 30 teams) through Monday's games. Just four players have even reached double digits in points.

"Other than Alex [Ovechkin], no one is really having a great year," captain Chris Clark said. "If we're going to win games, we can't rely on just one guy and our goalies."

During his drought, Pettinger has experienced a range of emotions, from frustration to guilt, which stems from the firing of former coach Glen Hanlon. Hanlon was replaced by Boudreau on Thursday after the Capitals got off to their worst start in 26 years.

"We weren't producing offensively," Pettinger said. "Part of that is me."

Yet as dejected as Pettinger was after his blown scoring chance in Philadelphia, Clark considered it a positive, perhaps a sign of things to come.

"That was a great offensive play," Clark said. "It was within an inch of going in. He's all around it. He's getting the chances, he's getting the shots. The pucks are going to start going in eventually."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company