After two days of fun in the overcast of Southern California, the Washington Capitals returned to work today at the Mira Mesa House of Ice here. One item of high priority was penalty killing.

It is a fair bet that even as they spotted the spouts of gray whales migrating in the Pacific and watched koala bears munch eucalyptus leaves at the nearby zoo, members of the NHL's best penalty-killing unit of last season were wondering why they are close to the league's worst this time around.

The two power play goals the Capitals yielded in the 5-2 loss at Los Angeles Saturday night boosted the season total to 55, in 208 chances. Last season the same unit gave up only 39 in 293.

Not only is the inability to kill off penalties proving costly on the scoreboard, it is also costing the players a considerable sum of money. The Stroh Brewery Co. this season is sponsoring a power rating competition, in which each divisional leader receives $25,000 and the team finishing first overall gets an added $100,000.

The power rating is derived by adding power-play and short-handed goals scored, then subtracting those given up. When the program was announced, the Capitals had every reason to expect to be splitting up $125,000 at season's end.

Last year, despite yielding a league-high 18 short-handed goals, most in the early season, the Capitals tied Edmonton for second place in the unofficial power-rating figures at plus 28, a notch behind Boston's 29.

Today the Capitals officially stand at minus five, in the bottom third of the league and fifth in the Patrick Division, with only pitiful Pittsburgh behind. Washington has collected 54 power play goals, a respectable figure, and three short-handed. But giving up those 55 extra-man goals, along with seven short-handed, has destroyed the club's chances of earning a dime.

The Capitals were exploited for 15 power play goals in the first 10 games, putting them at the bottom of the league right from the start. Everyone expected them to gradually pick up ground, but it hasn't happened. In the last eight games, they have been victimized nine times in 24 chances, and the penalty-killing failure has contributed to the disappearance of their 11-point lead, now reduced to three over surging Philadelphia.

Added to the impact on the scoreboard is the fact that inability to kill penalties tends to restrict aggressiveness. Nobody wants to risk a penalty if it is likely to be converted into an enemy goal.

"We've talked about penalty killing a great deal, but every time now we seem to make one mistake and the puck is in the net," said Coach Bryan Murray. "In L.A., we talked before the game about a faceoff play they were using on the power play, but when they tried it with just a little variation, it worked for a goal.

"Something just isn't working right. I'm not sure now about the strategy we're using. Maybe we're overplaying. Whatever it is, we've got to get it straightened out."

Doug Jarvis earned the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward a year ago, in large part because of his outstanding penalty killing. He insists he and his comrades have changed nothing, that only the results are different. "We know exactly what we did last year and we try to follow the same pattern," Jarvis said. "Obviously, it's not working. What can you say? Whether teams are scouting us or what, it's certainly an area we have to do something about."

Bob Gould, a penalty-killing standout ever since he came to Washington from Calgary in 1981, ranked third in the Selke voting in 1983. Like Jarvis, he is a thinking man's player, good at analysis of the proceedings on the ice. Like Jarvis, he cannot understand the penalty-killing fadeaway.

"If it were just a bad stretch of 10 or 12 games, maybe we could pinpoint it," Gould said. "But not when it's been this way the whole year. We talk about it lots, because it's cost us a lot of hockey games. If we stopped them just once out of four, we'd have won some more games. It was such a joy to go out and kill penalties last year, because we almost always stopped them. Now we second guess, we can't decide whether to go or not to go. For a while we'll do this, then we'll change again. There are a lot of things that may be wrong. I think teams really know what we're trying to do, for one. And we seem to be caught out of position too much. Maybe we're trying too hard.

"Probably there isn't the flow between forwards and defense we had last year. The forwards don't always cover for the defense. And sometimes both defensemen get caught on the same side.

"We're always talking before games about the other team's breakout and what it does on the power play. Maybe we ought to be more concerned about what we do. Maybe we ought to sit down and watch ourselves on TV, see what we're doing wrong. We need to get more confidence going into the playoffs. You have to really count on special teams in a lot of key situations in the playoffs."

The Capitals have a chance to start turning things around Thursday in Vancouver, since the Canucks' power play is the NHL's poorest.

With only 21 regular-season games remaining, time is running out, along with the lead.