The Washington Capitals, clinging to a 3-2 lead over Hartford Sunday, were grateful when Whaler Jack McIlhargey was sent off for tripping with 5:40 to play. The Capitals had little hope of padding their margin, but at least they figured to kill off two minutes without Hartford mounting an attack.

It almost did not work that way, The Whalers engineered a two-on-one break and it took an excellent save by goalie Dave Parro to keep Al Sims from tying the score.

The Capitals' power play -- or powerless play or sour play or whatever -- has been successful only twice in its last 55 opportunities. During that stretch, opponents have scored three times shorthanded.

Washington's extra-man success rate of 15.9 percent ranks 20th in the 21-team NHL, a fact elicited yesterday from Lou Corletto, the Capitals' director of public relations, who accompanied the answer by saying, "That's like calling your mother and telling her you just skipped school."

The Capitals have own three of their last four games, so they can afford not to pout over the short-circuited power play. Coach Gary Green, who otherwise has accomplished wonders with the club, claims not to lie awake at night trying to devise new alignments, although the several combinations he has used in recent games indicate much of his wakeful time is wasted in that area.

"We're winning games and that's the important thing," Green said. "About the power play I don't know. I think the guys are paranoid about going out there.

"The power play requires finesse and great movement, at least four of five guys out there who are so equipped. With a few exceptions like Gus (Bengt Gustafsson) and Garts (Mike Gartner), our guys are hardworking, bumping types. We try to make plays that other teams score on, but we don't have their finesse.

"It doesn't concern me too greatly.We're working on it. It isn't as though we put it in the closet and forgot about it, although some nights you'd like to. Maybe one of these nights we'll find the right combination of five guys and make it work."

A logical move to add spped and mobility to the power play would be to send out Guy Charron to move the puck around. Green, however, has consigned Charron to radio duty behind the bench and in the press box in recent games, because he prefers to dress Wes Jarvis and Glen Currie for their penalty-killing skills.

Although not a crisis yet, the power play promises to hurt the Capitals' overall game if it does not create some scores. A team that can take penalities without fear of paying on the scoreboard achieves a tremendous advantage, as the Philadelphia Flyers have demonstrated in past years.

The cry of "decline the penalty" has been heard around Capital Centre before and Green almost echoed it a week ago, when his charges had failed in 33 straight chances, by saying, "When you've got a bad power play, it actually hurts you. You almost want to decline them and go five on five. Shorthanded goals really hurt."

When Green was in Bloomington, Minn., recently, a reporter set him up by saying, "I've got a good story for tomorrow. Brad Buetow, the University of Minnesota coach, says he read one of your hockey books and organized his power play the way you illustrated it."

Green was interested, but only because he had failed to read the morning paper. Minnesota had yielded five shorthanded goals the night before in a loss to Colorado College. Finally informed that, Green smiled while waving a fist in mock anger.

Green is still smiling, except when he sends out the power-play unit.