Hanlon is the third different coach for whom Pettinger has played in Washington, but the two men’s history together dates back to the ’00-01 season in Portland when Hanlon was the Pirates’ head coach.
“I know what he is about,” says Hanlon. “I know how important hockey is to him and I know how hard he prepares.”
The three-year contract has done nothing to dissipate Pettinger’s work ethic. He is a tireless forechecker and a diligent penalty killer whose five shorthanded goals led the team last season. His main hockey assets are his speed and his hard shot, and he is just happy to have more of an opportunity to use them than he did early in his career.
“I feel like I’ve always had [those skills],” says Pettinger, “but my first few years here I had a specific role and I played a certain amount of minutes. It was usually under 10 minutes, and you don’t get very many touches. You’re out there to create energy, crash and bang. Over the past few years with the departure of so many big-name guys from here, guys have gotten more minutes. I was one of those guys last year and again I am playing 16, 17 minutes this year. With those minutes, whether it’s power play or penalty kill or top couple of lines, you’re getting more confidence and you’re playing with good players.”
As Hanlon had hoped, Pettinger has taken his game and he has applied it to playing with good players.
“I think now he
is one of the better players,” says Hanlon of Pettinger. “We put people with him and he helps other players get better. I feel that Matt has a certain style of play that he can’t wander from. I keep encouraging him to play a good, solid two-way game and don’t spend your whole thought process on how many goals you are going to score.
With his speed, size and his defensive prowess, Hanlon envisions another role for Pettinger at some point in the future.
“Looking down the road when we have all of our players,” starts Hanlon, “there is a pretty good chance that he will be part of a shutdown line for us. If you take a look at the [Devils’ John] Madden-[Jay]Pandolfo group, they have some offensive flair to them. They don’t just sit back. There are some guys who are very, very creative, but I think Matt’s game is lots of power. Get the pass that is available and get to the front of the net. By doing that, he’ll have a good career.”
He is currently playing on a line with Alexander Semin
and center Kris Beech. Beech and Pettinger were teammates with the Calgary Hitmen in 1999-00. Normally a left winger, Pettinger has moved to the right side on that line.
“I played it in the World Championships with Team Canada,” he says of the shift in position. “I’m fine with it. Usually the guys I am playing with, especially coming back in our end if I come down the left side, will communicate. They’ll say, ‘On the breakout here, you take the right side.’ It takes a little bit of getting used to. The biggest thing is breaking out, getting the pass on your backhand. That’s the only disadvantage. It’s easy to take it on your forehand on the left side being a left shot. But it’s nice also coming down the right side and you can have the option of cutting to the middle and getting a quick shot away.”
Pettinger scores his fair share of goals off the rush, using his speed to break free and create space and getting his shot off quickly, cleanly and accurately. Despite missing the first seven games of the season, Pettinger ranks fifth on the team in goals (10) and points (17). With 10 tallies in just 23 games, he is well on his way to a second 20-goal season, with the potential for more.
“Obviously you have some more confidence,” he says of his success on rushes and breakaways this season. “That’s the biggest thing. Just getting opportunities, getting breakaways, playing on the power play and just getting more touches and more confidence. I’m playing with good players; Beech and Semin are two offensively gifted players.
“It’s weird. Some of my goals this year have been those breakaways. The time you have between knowing you have a breakaway and the time you have to get the shot off – there is not a lot of time. You just go with your instincts and I’ve been lucky a few times going five-hole.”
The luck reference is Pettinger being modest. He got where he is now by working hard, having patience and persevering.
“I had him day in and day out in his first year [as a pro],” says Hanlon. “When you have a meeting with a player, and you show him video and the next game he is doing it, that’s pretty good at 20 years old. Sometimes you can take a player and bring him in and show him video, and a year later you’re still working on the same thing.
“I saw a young player who was focused in practice, was a good skater and had a good shot. He scored 19 goals his first year, If you look at the records, there aren’t many kids coming out in their first year [in the AHL] that score 19 goals. I knew he could play physically and I knew he was a determined guy. Even now, there are not many practices where you ask him to do a drill where it is not done properly.”
The 26-year-old Edmonton native embodies the work ethic that was woven into the fabric of “Caps Hockey” for so many years. And Pettinger is now second only to goaltender Olie Kolzig in terms of continuous service with the organization. He’d love to be around in Washington when the Caps win their first championship.
Gord Pettinger is one of five players in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup championship with three different teams. Matt Pettinger would settle for one different team, if he can get his name on the chalice alongside that of his great uncle’s.
“It would be awesome,” he says. “Obviously we are heading in the right direction. We’re a young group and we have great goaltending. It’s still a long process, though. It’s easy to sit and talk about it, but I have yet to even play in an NHL playoff game and a lot of guys are in the same boat. We’ve got to get some experience, and hopefully this year we can gain some of that [postseason] experience. It’s not an easy process at all. It’s a long year. We’re 30 games into the season now and we’ve played well to this point. But we’ve got to do it for 52 more games.”
As we’ve seen, a lot has changed and a lot has happened with Pettinger and the Capitals over the past six years. The next six years will bring about more change, hopefully the kind of change that involves banners and rings.