Washington's power play situation has become something of a Rubik's Cube for Capitals Coach Bryan Murray. The solution is there--somewhere--but finding it is taking longer than expected.

"Basically, all I can do is try to be patient," he said after his team had beaten Pittsburgh, 6-3, despite capitalizing on just one power play in eight. "We spend enough time on it. (At practice) we have so many diagrams on the board, so many discussions about it. It's taking some time."

The new, improved Capitals, who play at Hartford tonight (WDCA-TV-20, 7:30), have become new and improved in every other aspect of their game, from defense to overall conduct on the ice. But they remain unable to consistently take advantage of the opposition's penalties.

"Our percentage on power plays isn't terrible--we're about 12th in the (21-team) league," Murray said. The Capitals have a 20.9 average, 13th in the NHL. In their last four games--versus the Flyers twice, the Islanders and Penguins--the Capitals are three for 23.

"Maybe it looks bad as far as what we're achieving," Murray said after yesterday's practice. "Entering (their) zone, getting good position--that's the part that's not working.

"But when we do get in there, we do get some fairly good shooting chances. Against Philadelphia (last Sunday), during the first two power plays, we had maybe six pretty good shooting chances. It just doesn't happen often enough. We're passing up too many chances.

"Like last night against Pittsburgh. We'd try to move in and they'd line up against us."

General Manager Dave Poile agrees. "Obviously, if there's any one area to be disappointed in, it's the power play," he said. "You do reach a certain point where you have to question the personnel, but all I want to say now is we need the patience and persistence. Statistically, we were 12 percent going into this same week a year ago."

Murray doesn't plan any major shakeups at this point, but said there is a possibility of sometimes using one different skater on that unit.

"I like to think by sticking with one unit and having a second one available is the way to work it out. But maybe playing Craig (Laughlin) or Bobby (Gould), or (Alan) Haworth occasionally could help, too."

Murray would like to see his power play shift from being "a right-handed hockey team to the extreme," explaining, "We refuse to do things that would open up the box (opposition's four skaters moving in a box formation). I would like Greg (Theberge) to throw the puck across."

Murray said he "harps on that," but because Theberge, on the right point, is so concerned about doing his job properly, he hesitates. "He's pressing--we all are--and he's doing something that's become a habit."

The opposition's aggressive way of killing penalties is taking a toll on the Capitals, too. "Last year, teams--Pittsburgh, for instance--had a very tightly controlled penalty-killing system," Murray said. "We were one of the first teams last season to go out and fight it aggressively. And it takes away what you can do.

"The guys are fully aware of it and are coming up with their own little ways to deal with it. When we go out and score on an early power play, everything works well," Murray said. "By repetition, we'll get it down."

Bengt Gustafsson, whose right shoulder was bruised Tuesday night, is likely to miss the next few games. "It's very tender," Murray said . . . Milan Novy, who twisted his left ankle, skated briefly at yesterday's practice, but had difficulty and Murray called him off the ice. "He's walking normally, he rode the (exercise) bike and other than skating, it's all right. There's a possibility it'll be all right by tomorrow (Thursday)," said Murray.