Alan Haworth scored the Washington Capitals' first three goals Sunday night as they defeated the Vancouver Canucks, 5-2. He should have had four.

Early in the second period, with the score tied at 1, Dave Christian made a perfect pass to Haworth, who was open in the slot. He shot at the net -- except that it wasn't there.

A Vancouver defenseman apparently dislodged the cage just before Haworth shot and it was almost perpendicular to the end boards when he sent the puck past it. Of course, once it came off its moorings, play was whistled dead.

"I shot and I figured, 'This is an easy goal, a tap-in,' " Haworth said. "Then I thought, 'Omigod, I missed the net.' I couldn't believe I'd missed it, then I turned around and realized it was off the post."

The nets at both ends came loose several times during the contest, but only on that occasion did it affect the play. Nevertheless, the use, for the first time this season, of magnets on both the goal posts and bottom pegs has created numerous halts in play.

The rulebook calls for a minor penalty against a player deliberately displacing a goal post. If it happens on a breakaway, in the last two minutes of regulation or in overtime, the violation calls for a penalty shot.

Officials trying to watch so many other aspects of the contest cannot be expected to have their eyes on the crease area at all times, however. And trying to determine intent in such a situation is rather difficult, unless a player performing the act is as dumb as a safecracker who drops his wallet at the scene of the crime.

On the play where Haworth lost his target, referee Dave Newell had no more idea than Haworth how the goal had been moved.

"I was right behind him and I had the same angle he had," Newell said. "It was a good scoring opportunity and you hate to see something like that happen. Where it's even worse is if the puck goes in at about the same time the net comes off. Then you've got a real problem."

The referee and linesmen are directed by the rulebook to stop play "immediately" when a goal post is displaced.

Later in the second period, the cage came loose as Haworth and Craig Laughlin were hacking at the puck in the crease while being badgered by two Canucks. Haworth knocked the puck across the goal line and Newell permitted the goal to stand, although it was a close call.

"Of all the games I've worked so far, this one and one other city are the only places we've had problems," Newell said. "I don't think the pegs here are up high enough from the ice. It's a learning experience and the people who look after the maintenance most of the time have it down pat. The idea behind them (the magnets) is excellent. We just have to get everybody working together.

"The safety factor is important, no question. I've already seen two or three players skating in hell bent for election who would have been hurt with the old posts."

In the past nets were fitted on eight-inch pegs placed in the ice and had little give, resulting in some serious injuries. The goal, for more solid balance, also had a dangerous base plate, which came close to killing Mark Howe when he was impaled on one four years ago.

"I had one game this season where they came off eight times," said referee Andy Van Hellemond. "They shouldn't come off at all. It appears they're going to have to put in a little more research before it's perfected."

Linesman Ray Scapinello, after the posts had been jarred loose several times during the Washington-Los Angeles game at Capital Centre, said, "We can pull them up. That shouldn't happen. Either the base magnet is too low or the post magnet is too high or wet.

"I had one game where we were using (referee) Ron Wicks' handkerchief most of the night to dry the magnets and keep the posts from sliding off."

Linesman Bob Hodges pointed out another problem: "The snow builds up around the posts during the game and it's possible for the post to be off a little and you can't tell. But if somebody scores, you can bet you'll have five or six guys yelling at you."

Washington goalie Pat Riggin complained when the Philadelphia Flyers scored a goal under such circumstances in an exhibition game at Hershey. He foresees some heated disputes before the season is over. "It's just too easy to knock them off," Riggin said. "It's a good idea and they're close, but they don't have it perfected yet."

"I guess guys will start to play with it a little if it gets hectic," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "A Vancouver defenseman took it off one time last night and got away with it . . . Whenever you make technical improvements like this, it takes time to smooth them out. At least, it's cutting down on injuries."