A year ago, Paul Mulvey was selected the Washington Capitals' most-improved player by his teammates. The 6-foot-4 winger collected 15 goals and a club-record 240 penalty minutes, but more important was the way he stormed into the corners to procure the puck for linemates Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner.

This season, Big Mo came to training camp with a reasonable expectation of establishing himself as a first-line National Hockey League forward. His skating, a longtime liability, was improving with maturity and the attention of assistant coach Bill Mahoney. Physically, he was even stronger following offseason work.

After the Capitals' first 13 games, however, of which Mulvey has played 11, he has not scored a goal, owns only four assists and his attempts to assert himself physically have more often resulted in ill-timed penalties than in successful playmaking.

Mulvey's trouble apparently began during the exhibition campaign, when he twice was cited for violations of the new NHL rule prohibiting an offensive player from standing in the crease.

"At the start, I definitely had to get that out of my mind," Mulvey said. "My best playing is up and down and crunching and I couldn't let that rule take away from my game."

It did, however, and in Los Angeles, Capital radio carried the following transmission from Mahoney to alternate goalie Wayne Stephenson: "See if you can wake up Mulvey."

The next night, in Denver, Mulvey played his best period of the season, bouncing Rockies around as Washington built an early 2-0 lead. However, he was cross-checked in the ribs and fear of internal injury kept him out of the lineup until Wednesday night, when he was charged with three costly penalties in the Capitals' 5-3 loss to Los Angeles at Capital Centre.

The first two, for elbowing and interference, wiped out Capital manpower advantages. The third, for charging, gave the Kings a power play and they capitalized on it to shatter a 2-2 tie.

"He hasn't played as aggressively on a smart basis as last year," said Coach Gary Green. "He hasn't reached his capabilities as far as skating, going into the corner, moving the puck to Walter and Gartner.

"We had a long talk about it before last night's game and I thought he improved in the aggressive arrea, but he was overaggressive. He has to find a happy medium.

"The officials are watching everybody in front of the net, particularly guys who lived in the crease last year. And he certainly lived in the crease, so effectively that I'm not sure he wasn't at least one-twentieth of the reason for that new rule.

"He can still do it very effectively. He can do the same screening job one or two feet outside, but he has to draw a line and stay out of the crease. He has to do it the smart way. If he goes to lace a guy, he can't use his elbows or cross-check him. They're looking for that."

"Mulvey knows his job and how to do it. It is the execution that has come slowly.

"Gary and I had a talk and I know my game," Mulvey said. "There's no doubt what I have to do. I started slow. It came back to me. I felt good in Denver for the first time and then I got hurt.

"The ribs are no problem, but they're there. Just like that rule, I can't let them bother me. I haven't been playing as well as I'd like to be. I have to get back to playing the body, get back to it and make things happen.

"I'm not interested now in scoring goals. I shouldn't care if I get that many points. I have to start opening it up for Garts and Walt. Last night, it was happening for a while and then it didn't happen for a while."

For the Capitals, struggling through a seven-game winless streak, it is important that Mulvey make things happen more consistently. Green, remembering the bruising Mulvey of last winter, is confident that he will.

It's very early in the season and not time to panic," Green said. "I'm not panicking with Paul at all. I have all the confidence in the world in him."

The Capitals had a day off yesterday. "It's a valuable day, a chance to get away from hockey, to relax, recuperate and do some deep thinking," Green said . . . Although scoring is a Capital concern, the team is currently averaging 3.31 goals per game, compared with 3.26 last season. Goals against are down, from 3.66 to 3.26 . . . Following Saturday's home game against Buffalo, the Capitals face four straight on the road.