Center Michal Pivonka, the Washington Capitals' third-leading scorer this past season, has been suspended for the first three games of next season and fined $1,000 because of a high-sticking penalty incurred during the first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL announced today.

Capitals General Manager David Poile reacted this evening by intimating that the league perhaps treats the Capitals differently than it does other teams, going back to a Dale Hunter incident in the 1993 playoffs.

Pivonka was given a five-minute major high-sticking penalty and a game misconduct 5 minutes 15 seconds into the second period of Game 7 against the Penguins on May 18 after his stick hit defenseman Kjell Samuelsson in the chin. Samuelsson received 60 stitches and returned for the third period. He did, however, miss Game 1 of the Penguins' series against New Jersey.

"Although Mr. Pivonka has not previously faced supplementary discipline for this type of conduct," Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations, said in a statement, "there can be no excuse for the reckless manner in which he struck and injured Mr. Samuelsson with his stick."

Pivonka, Poile and Coach Jim Schoenfeld pleaded their case to Burke via telephone last week. Pivonka could not be reached for comment. Poile, from his office at USAir Arena, said that Pivonka was instinctively trying to protect himself when he saw Samuelsson was about to check him.

Poile said that "we reviewed the play. We watched the play." He said that moments earlier Pivonka had checked Samuelsson and that Samuelsson was about to retaliate. "Samuelsson was going to run Pivonka, so he puts up his stick to protect himself," Poile said.

"I am disappointed and very frustrated. Michal Pivonka gets three games for reacting to Kjell Samuelsson going to hit him. But {Pittsburgh's Shawn} McEachern intentionally slashed Calle Johansson {in the leg in last year's playoffs}. Johansson was out three months and he {McEachern} got the same three games. . . .

"It all goes back to the Dale Hunter thing," Poile said, referring to Hunter being suspended for a league-record 21 games for a late hit on Pierre Turgeon during the 1993 playoff series against the New York Islanders. "It never seems to end."

Pivonka totaled 10 goals and 23 assists this past season, behind only his linemate, right wing Peter Bondra, and center Joe Juneau, who scored 43 points apiece. He also is among the club's premier penalty killers. Pivonka had a goal and four assists in the seven playoff games.

Pivonka, 29, is the most veteran of the current Capitals, having been with them since 1986-87. He will become a restricted free agent at the end of the playoffs. Poile previously said the Capitals want to re-sign him and he reiterated that this evening.

The suspension is for three games without pay, and the $1,000 fine is the maximum amount allowed under the labor agreement between the NHL and its players. Neither the suspension nor the fine can be appealed. CAPTION: MICHAL PIVONKA