Glen Hanlon doesn't measure his team's progress by the NHL standings. Instead, the Washington Capitals coach gauges improvement by the length of his to-do list.
"When we first started in October, after games, the coaching staff would have a list of so many things," Hanlon said. "You almost didn't know which one was more important. Or which one was going to help you get to where you want to get to be quicker."
Hanlon's list is considerably shorter after 28 games. But there's one major item he hasn't been able to cross off: special teams, a problem underscored the past two games. The Capitals' power play has scored in five straight, but remains ranked 29th in the NHL. The penalty-kill unit is also second to last.
Against the Capitals last week, the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings collected a combined six power-play goals on 12 opportunities. The Capitals' power play scored twice on 17 chances. The Capitals lost both games, 5-2 and 4-3, respectively, and remain in last place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 9-17-2.
"If you look at our five-on-five play, goals for and against, we're close to even now, whereas before there was a huge difference in five-on-five goals," Hanlon said. "So it comes down to power play and penalty kill."
Special teams are more critical than ever this season because of the league crackdown on obstruction, which has led to a spike in the number of power plays per game. It is penalizing teams such as the Capitals, who are long on effort but short on proven talent.
"We're happy with the effort, but to not get points [against Nashville and Detroit] is unacceptable and frustrating," Capitals captain Jeff Halpern said. "We feel that we've turned that corner and that we are outplaying teams. But we're not getting the timely goal when we need it, to either open the game up or tie it up."
Sticks and . . .
After the Capitals' loss Friday, Alex Ovechkin sought out Pavel Datsyuk, a fellow Russian and former teammate on Moscow Dynamo. After the two spoke for a few minutes, Ovechkin returned to the Capitals' locker room with Datsyuk's hockey stick, which the Detroit star autographed and wrote "Good Luck" on the blade.
Ovechkin said he planned to add it to his collection of hockey memorabilia, which includes 2,000 hockey cards and about a half-dozen sticks from Russian players he admires. He already has autographed sticks from the New York Islanders' Alexei Yashin, the Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk, the New Jersey Devils' Viktor Kozlov and the Buffalo Sabres' Maxim Afinogenov, among others.
Asked why he only has sticks from Russians, Ovechkin smiled and said: "I don't know. I like how we play."
Matt Pettinger continues to make the most of his opportunity. The 25-year-old left wing equaled his previous career high of seven goals with a short-handed tally against Detroit. Pettinger also reached the plateau in the 2001-02 and 2003-04 seasons.
Pettinger's future with the organization was unclear early this season, when he received limited playing time and often was not in uniform. But an injury to Jeff Friesen (groin) and the departure of Petr Sykora (returned to Czech Republic) have made Pettinger a fixture in the lineup. Recently, he has skated on a forward line with Halpern and Brian Willsie and played a prominent role on the penalty-kill unit.
"It's worked out so far," Pettinger said. "There's a coach here who has given me every opportunity to play. He knows what I can do. I've grown up the past five years playing for him. I don't want to get too high and say here's how many goals I should have. I haven't put pressure on myself to score goals. I'm just going out and playing hard."