The Washington Capitals' woes this season are much too widespread to pin on any individuals. But the coaches still singled out a few players for special attention upon the team's arrival here Wednesday morning.

They met with center Andrei Nikolishin and defenseman Sergei Gonchar before practice with the intention of getting two of the club's key players to play closer to their abilities.

Gonchar was expected to find the consistency that has eluded him and blossom into a franchise defenseman this season. After scoring 21 goals in just 53 games last season, the 25-year-old seemed primed to lead the team at both ends of the ice and anchor the special teams. Nikolishin was expected to check the opposing team's top centers, kill penalties and use his playmaking skills to feed his wingers.

Neither player has a goal--which has compounded their frustration and caused them to alter their games--but that's not the real problem. Coach Ron Wilson is most perturbed about their defensive play. They have made numerous mistakes around the net that have contributed to the team's four game slump (0-3-1), during which the Capitals have been outscored 17-7.

At one point, Wilson dabbled with pulling both players from the lineup for Friday night's rematch with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim--a team that spanked the Capitals, 7-1, last week--but opted for a discussion instead.

"They are frustrated because neither one has scored a goal, and I can really sympathize with that," Wilson said. "But by trying to score so hard, you end up not doing your most important job of all, which is playing sound defensively.

"So you get caught up in this, 'I've got to score a goal, I've got to score a goal.' And the next thing you know, you've got to score two goals that night to make up for your mistakes when you're already struggling just to score one. You're better off not scoring any and not giving up any.

"We're just trying to re-center those guys to work within what we're trying to do.

"They know they're not playing well and we told them not to worry about scoring--just pay attention to the game, simplify things and in due time the worm always turns."

Both players were receptive to the meeting. Both realize their play was lagging. Gonchar already was putting more pressure on himself with so much expected this season. During much of his career he missed chunks of training camp because of injuries or contract problems, but he looked great in this preseason.

During the regular season, however, he often has seemed lost on the ice, failing to pick up his man, and lacking focus. He has not made much of an impact on the power play, either, where his shot is a focal point.

"I am disappointed with how I'm playing," Gonchar said. "I have a lot of expectations for the season and the coaches show trust in me and expect a lot more of me and I agree with them.

"I am not there yet, but there are still 70 games to go. I am going to do my best."

Nikolishin was one of the team's unsung heroes through the first two weeks of the season, setting up key goals, eliminating opposing forwards from the play. But he was burned by Anaheim's top line last week and started to force his offense in that game to compensate.

That has continued, and Wilson hopes to team him with youngsters Yogi Svejkovsky and Alexandre Volchkov Friday night, forcing the veteran to think defense first, knowing his less experienced wingers are still learning that part of the game. However, Svejkovsky has an ailing shoulder and his status is unclear.

"I'm trying to do too much on offense and forgetting about defense, which is my game," Nikolishin said.

"It's not smart, but a lot of forwards think like that when you play eight games and have no goals. I agree with the coaches. It was a good meeting for me and Sergei."

Capitals Notes: Peter Bondra and Jan Bulis have combined for 11 goals in eight games; the rest of the team has combined for nine. . . . The Capitals have been held to two goals or fewer in four straight games. . . . Anaheim defenseman Ruslan Salei returns Friday night from his 10-game suspension for checking Dallas center Mike Modano from behind in the season opener.