Clark, Capitals can see changes

In the space of one summer day, right wing Chris Clark was traded from a team that went to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals to a team that stood no chance of making it to postseason beyond a TV screen.

Today Clark is captain of the Washington Capitals, a team that just defeated his old Flames in Calgary, and he loves to talk about the improvements that have been made in the course of a season.

“Last year wasn’t so much a bad memory but the beginning of last year was,” he said. “Where we were last year at this point, yeah, a bad memory for sure. But from the Olympic break [Feb. 28] on we made huge strides. Right now we’re a 100 percent better team than we were at the start of last season.”

While it is early — extremely early, just 11 games — the improvements in the team are hard to dismiss. The differences are in every category where the coaches sought upgrades, the improvement achieved.

“It’s a totally different team from this point a year ago to today,” Clark said. “The younger guys have a full year of experience and now they’re NHL players, legitimate NHL players, not just minor league guys trying to make the roster. Everybody’s moving forward now, moving steadier.”

The biggest differences are in special teams, areas where coach Glen Hanlon and his staff sought to make them and where Washington was virtually non-competitive last season.

One huge factor has been penalties taken by the Caps. Washington averages 14 minutes a game in the penalty box; its penalty minute total as a whole is down 28 percent from the same point last season. That has allowed penalty-kill units to be better rested and the kill rate has climbed to nearly 82 percent from 76 percent last season.

There is a trickle down effect. Offensively skilled players usually don’t kill penalties, meaning the more penalties the Caps take, the less ice time guys like Alex Ovechkin get. Washington has scored 12 more goals this season and allowed eight fewer, a net gain of 20 that might not have been possible without more discipline.

Washington is also taking advantage when it gets the chance, something it didn’t do as well during 2005-06. The Caps power play success rate has climbed to 17 percent from 12, a difference of only three goals at the moment but headed upward.

“I think we’re on the right course,” Hanlon said. “We’ve put a lot of focus on a couple areas and made improvements. We talked from day one about specialty teams and they’ve improved. But the quality of chances we gave up a year ago and the glaring breakdowns just aren’t there.”

And when they are, Hanlon has not hesitated in benching players whose play he feels is hurting the team effort.

Notes — The Toronto-based rock group Barenaked Ladies will sing the national anthem before tonight’s game against Atlanta at Verizon Center. … Forward Rico Fata, who cleared waivers, has rejected the Caps’ plans to send him to Hershey and is exploring opportunities in Europe. He played in Italy one season.

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