At equal strength, the Washington Capitals have been outscored 62-47 in their first 24 games. That is the stuff of which last-place finishes are made, but the Capitals have avoided such a fate because of their remarkable special teams play.

The penalty-killing, always a Capitals asset, has improved with the addition of Dave Tippett, to the extent that Washington leads the NHL, stopping opponents' power plays 87.5 percent of the time.

Far more surprising is the power play, which has a 26.8 percent success rate. That ranked second to the 27.1 of Calgary, which played Los Angeles last night.

"Decline the penalty" has long been a taunt of Capital Centre critics, as just three times in 16 previous seasons have the Capitals ranked in the upper half of NHL power plays. But there have been no complaints this year; in home games, Washington has scored 19 extra-man goals in 52 chances, a 36.5 percent clip.

"The fans have been good," said center Dale Hunter, who has four power-play goals. "It's not like the days when Larry Murphy would always hear the booing. That puts pressure on you to do things you shouldn't be doing."

To hear the players and Coach Terry Murray talk, the rise of the power play is based on the simple factors of hard work and execution. "There's no magic," Murray said. "The point men are shooting the puck and the forwards are getting in front at the right time to do some damage. We've spent a lot of time on it, right from the third day of training camp, and we've talked about it a lot.

"It's a matter of execution. For every situation, there's an option and the players are doing their jobs very well. Certainly, our special-teams play has carried us a great amount of the distance. Even-strength situations have been a tough grind as far as scoring goals."

It was felt that the power play would be a problem too, with the absence of Dino Ciccarelli and the departure of Geoff Courtnall and Scott Stevens. They totaled 26 of the 70 goals for a power-play unit that was 19th at 17 percent last season.

Others have more than filled the gap, as 11 players already have connected. The top man is John Druce, who has six. It is hard to believe that he had scored only one extra-man goal until he went wild with eight in last season's playoffs.

Kevin Hatcher and Calle Johansson have been outstanding at the points, firing testing shots while the forwards are distracting the goaltender by creating traffic in front. Memory recalls too many times when Stevens and others unloaded while the goalie had an unobstructed view of the puck.

In Wednesday's 5-3 victory over Toronto, the Capitals converted three of four power plays, in each case needing less than a minute to score. On the first goal of the game, both Druce and Hunter had sticks in the air trying to deflect Hatcher's 40-foot drive; Druce redirected the puck past goalie Jeff Reese.

"We're maybe a little more patient this year," Johansson said. "The forwards are going to the net when we're shooting the puck, instead of when we're passing it around. And we're shooting when somebody's in front, instead of when nobody's there.

"Our forwards are working pretty well down low. Last year we got in and {the other team} shot the puck right out. Now our forwards are all over the defensemen, not letting them clear the zone."

"We started to click from the first game," Hunter said. "The guys have been working hard on it. We don't have as much talent as Calgary and we don't have any Mario {Lemieux} or {Wayne} Gretzky. But working hard makes up for that.

"We've gotten confidence in what we're doing and that sort of thing balloons."

Hunter and Druce have taken some physical beatings while hanging in front of the net, but opponents have not been able to clear them out without winding up in the penalty box.

"If we can create some traffic in front, all the point men have to do is just put the puck on net," Druce said. "That way, we can try to deflect it and hang in there for rebounds. They don't have to blast it."

When Bryan Murray -- now coach of a 12.9 percent, 19th-ranked power play at Detroit -- was the Capitals' coach, he often dreamed up set plays that worked for a stretch, until they were diagnosed by opposing scouts. So far the scouts have been unable to solve brother Terry's game plan.

"I don't mind practicing the power play with scouts in the stands," Terry Murray said. "You can create good things even if the opponent knows what you'll do. It's all a case of execution."