The NHL suspended Washington Capitals winger Richard Zednik yesterday for four games for a cross-check late in Tuesday night's overtime loss to Colorado, a ruling that shocked and angered members of the Capitals' organization.

Zednik, who spoke with league representatives during a conference call late yesterday afternoon, struck Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote in the face after both players exchanged blows late in Tuesday's game.

Zednik will begin his suspension against Stanley Cup champion New Jersey tonight and will not be back in the lineup until Oct. 29. The ruling will be made official by the NHL today, sources said. The Capitals were bracing for a one-game suspension, considering the league's much-publicized mandate on cutting down on stick infractions (one or two games has been the norm in these cases), but the team says this sentence is unfairly harsh.

"It's not worthy of a suspension at all to me," General Manager George McPhee said. "He received a five-minute major and a game misconduct, and that alone was enough discipline. A suspension isn't correct here. I'm sick about it. This wasn't an unprovoked slash or a situation where a player is trying to injure someone. [Zednik] was being mugged by another player and reacted to protect himself."

The suspension comes at the worst possible time for Washington (0-4-2), a team that has scored just 11 goals. Zednik, who will be replaced by Glen Metropolit tonight, has been one of the team's hardest-working players, is one of only five forwards to score this season and has generated quality chances every game, though he has lacked a strong finishing touch. That frustration might have led to Zednik's altercation with Foote, during which the men traded shots along the boards.

Sources said the league acknowledged Foote should have been penalized for tripping center Jan Bulis seconds before tangling with Zednik.

"If they call the right penalties, that situation [with Zednik] never develops," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said.

After being struck in the head, Zednik cross-checked Foote in the face--precisely the kind of hit the NHL is vowing to curtail--and was issued a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct. Foote received only a two-minute minor for elbowing, though Wilson says the rugged defender deserved a more severe penalty. The Avalanche--the deepest offensive team in the NHL--had three minutes of power-play time to work with ("We were done from that point on as far as I'm concerned," Wilson said) and quickly converted for the game-winning goal.

Zednik, who must sacrifice four games' worth of salary, suffered a concussion last season when Florida enforcer Peter Worrell--like Foote, a man much larger than Zednik--nailed him with an elbow. Zednik told McPhee he was protecting against further head trauma.

"Zed suffered one concussion last year and said he didn't want another one," McPhee said, agreeing with his player's assessment of the situation.

Zednik might not be the only regular to miss tonight's game. Defenseman Brendan Witt left Tuesday's game on his second shift after being hit on his left elbow and did not return. Witt experienced a tingling feeling Tuesday night, as if he banged his funny bone on a much larger scale, and did not practice yesterday. Witt's arm felt closer to normal yesterday, and Wilson expects him back in the lineup by Saturday. Veteran Dmitri Mironov, just back from the minors, would replace Witt in the lineup if he cannot play.

Ending their winless streak tonight would not be easy even at full strength. One game after facing goaltending legend Patrick Roy, who set the career wins record Tuesday night, the Capitals must now attempt to defeat his greatest pupil, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, the player most likely to challenge Roy's records. Should the Capitals fail to defeat New Jersey, they would equal their longest stretch of season-opening futility since 1983-84 (the franchise record is nine games without a win to start a season, set in 1975-76).

"Right now, the longer it goes, the tougher it's going to be to get that first win," defenseman Ken Klee said. "We've got to just keep persevering and get it done."

Capitals vs. New Jersey Devils

* Where: MCI Center.

* Time: 7 p.m.

* TV: HTS.

* Radio: WTEM-980, WNAV-1430.

* Records: Capitals 0-4-2, 3 points; Devils 2-1-1, 5 points.

* Probable Goalies: Washington--Olaf Kolzig (0-3-0, 2.98 goals-against average). New Jersey--Martin Brodeur (2-1-1, 2.69).

* Injuries: Washington D Brendan Witt (sore left elbow) is questionable.