Bryan Murray marked his 45th birthday yesterday. It would be a mistake to say he celebrated it, because coaches of underachieving hockey teams are reluctant to celebrate anything beyond a victory on the ice.

Twenty-five games into the season, his Washington Capitals must be considered underachievers, if not quite matching the dreadful starts with which the Philadelphia Flyers and Hartford Whalers have disappointed their fans.

The Capitals are 11-12-2 and, after winning their first three games against Patrick Division opponents, have recorded five losses and a tie in divisional games.

The Capitals next will embark on a strange schedule in which they do not face another Patrick team before Christmas. They play 10 in a row outside the division, commencing with tonight's Capital Centre visit by the high-scoring, virtually defenseless Los Angeles Kings.

While that schedule offers little chance to cut into the early-season margin built up by the first-place Islanders and second-place New Jersey, it will give the Capitals time to clean up their act before the competition for playoff berths resumes in earnest.

"We have played better outside the division than within and this gives us a chance to get a couple of guys healthy and back, as well as to spend some time working with the young guys," Murray said. "But we still have to win our share to stay in contention.

"No matter whom we play and where, in the division or out, we have to be consistently better. We're close, but we're not winning and it's just not satisfactory."

One of his priorities this season was to improve the power play. That has been accomplished and the Capitals have two extra-man scores in each of the last seven games.

Incredibly, however, the team's rate of success during that stretch, 14 of 48 for 29.2 percent, has been surpassed by the opposition's power play, 10 of 32 for 31.3 percent.

In Friday's 6-4 loss to the Islanders, the special teams proved critical, New York connecting three times on the power play and once while shorthanded.

"Our penalty killing has been awful," Murray said. "Our power play gets a couple of goals and then we give them back. That was one of the areas that was a real strength for us in the past and now it's becoming a liability.

"I think we have the people and I think we have the best people doing it. But we're giving up too many chances. We turn it over too much and there's a fatigue factor, with guys staying out too long. Also, our defensemen are playing far too high. They think they have to help the forwards out and sometimes they're chasing the puck to the top of the circle.

"Last night, once again, the penalty killing was the whole difference in the game. On their last power-play goal, we broke down all the way. Everybody who was out there made a mistake. We certainly made them {the Islanders} look like a finesse team."

The Capitals have been killing penalties aggressively the last couple of seasons and opponents now take advantage of that, luring defenders out, then working the puck behind them for easy shots.

"Maybe we have to be more conservative," said Bob Gould, a key to this season's penalty-killing unit as well as the one that ranked fifth in the NHL a year ago. "You have a box to keep the puck on the perimeter, but the perimeter doesn't seem to be there any more."

Of course, the absence of defensemen Rod Langway and Greg Smith has been a factor. But the penalty killing was a problem when they were playing and besides, as Murray said, "Bill Houlder, Paul Cavallini and Garry Galley have to do a job for us. We can't play with three guys. We're going to be short for a while."

Capitals Notes: Goalie Pete Peeters, recovering from a strained knee ligament, practiced yesterday and should be ready to play in a few days. . . . Los Angeles' Bob Carpenter has 10 goals and 17 assists in his first 26 games. His full-season figures a year ago were 9-18.