The Washington Capitals didn't help their own cause much last night--again conceding an early goal, taking ill-advised penalties, wilting on their penalty kill. But referee Richard Trottier didn't do them any favors, either--missing several key calls and drawing the Capitals' ire on several occasions. It all culminated in a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks before 11,112 fans at MCI Center.

In addition to the defeat, the Capitals lost defenseman Sergei Gonchar for at least one game with a broken nose, the result of Ron Sutter's cross-check. Brendan Witt, another key defenseman, will have his knee evaluated today and could miss considerable time after being hit by Ron Stern in the first period. No penalty was called on either play.

"I've seen the play five times," Coach Ron Wilson said. "[Gonchar] got cross-checked in the face. All the officials said they were watching the puck. They missed it.

"It was one of those nights where we didn't get many calls. The second goal that they scored, the guy bumped Olie [Kolzig] from behind, and that's right after he disallows a goal at the other end. It got a little confusing as to what's what."

Gonchar bled profusely after being hit and needed 17 stitches. The Capitals will ask the league to review the play for a possible suspension. Sutter said it was accidental, adding, "You don't like to see that happen to anybody."

"He did it on purpose," Gonchar said. "I've seen it. There's no chance he should get away [with it]."

Regardless, under NHL rules players must control their sticks, and a double-minor (four-minute) penalty is the usual call for cutting a player unintentionally. All three officials said they did not see the incident.

The Capitals also objected to the first call of the game. Forward James Black went off for cross-checking about six minutes into the game, though it appeared Richard Zednik was actually hauled down in front. Still, the Capitals twice failed to clear the zone and didn't defend the crease, leaving Owen Nolan, the NHL's leading scorer, alone for an easy tap-in.

The Capitals, the NHL's premier penalty killing club since Jan. 1, 1990, allowed their eighth power-play goal in five games and are 15 for 24 on the penalty kill, worst in the league. They allowed the opposition to score first for the fifth straight game.

"We've got to be more aggressive and meaner in front of our net and more alert," Wilson said. "We weren't alert in a couple of situations and it killed us."

Later, Washington (2-2-1) began to charge the net and create opportunities. Ken Klee hit a post. Jan Bulis beat San Jose goalie Steve Shields--who leads the league in wins, goals-against average and save percentage--but hit the post. Wilson made a subtle move to boost the attack further, and, just as in Tuesday's comeback win over Philadelphia, it worked instantly.

Wilson put left wing Steve Konowalchuk back with his usual linemates--Bulis and Zednik--and bumped Black up with Andrei Nikolishin and Peter Bondra. Black and Nikolishin owned the boards on their first shift together, defenseman Calle Johansson alertly darted in from the point and unleashed one of the hardest shots in hockey, beating Shields low to the short side. That tied the score 5 minutes 20 seconds into the second period.

Johansson had his first goal of the season; Black picked up his first point. Bondra and Black each nearly scored the next time they touched the ice.

A few minutes later, defenseman Dmitri Mironov stole a puck near the crease and went plowing into Shields. Bondra flipped the puck into the empty net, but the score was negated for crease interference despite a protest by the Capitals. Still, Washington was dictating the play. Then winger Miika Elomo made what could only be described as a rookie blunder.

Elomo, playing in his first NHL game, took a run at Mike Ricci at the blue line, with no one but the officials around, and drew a penalty for interference.

"With all the stick-work out there, I can understand why he got frustrated," Wilson said. "But he's got to be smarter about that."

San Jose's potent power play quickly converted. Nineteen-year-old star defenseman Brad Stuart scored on a slap shot through traffic; Washington's penalty killers were victimized for the second time in three chances. The Sharks went up 3-1 early in the third period, when Bulis's turnover led to Stephane Matteau's goal--the first third-period tally the Capitals have allowed this season.

Bulis made it 3-2 with a nifty deflection with 3:19 to play on an assist by Jeff Halpern, but there would be no comeback victory.

"It's great that we never give up out there, but we want to play with the lead," forward Chris Simon said. "We have to make sure we're ready at the start of the game and start coming out strong."