Glen Hanlon's list of areas in which his Washington Capitals need improvement is lengthy. But nothing, the coach said yesterday, is more troubling to him than the exorbitant number of shots on goal his club has surrendered.

Fortunately for Hanlon -- and his battered goaltenders -- the Capitals' hectic schedule has relented, providing them with ample practice time in recent days to address their defensive woes.

Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson have absorbed a peppering in net, to the tune of a league-worst 39.3 shots per game. The team has yielded 4.71 goals on average, which, not so coincidentally, is also worst in the league.

They Capitals have been outshot in every game, five times by 17 or more. The most shots withstood were 49, in a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders. The biggest shot disparity was against Tampa Bay -- 40-14 -- in a game the Capitals won in a shootout, 3-2, to improve to 3-4-0.

For Kolzig, it's not so much how many shots he faces, but the number of "quality" scoring chances he sees.

"It's not quantity; it's quality of shots," Kolzig said. "If we can eliminate the quality shots, that's a good start.

"In the loss to Atlanta at home, I faced [39] shots, but it felt like 60 because there were a lot of scoring chances. Against Tampa, they had 40 shots, but it wasn't as busy a night."

The best way to cut down on those prime scoring opportunities, Kolzig said, is for his teammates to stay out of the penalty box. The Capitals are also one of the league's most penalized teams, at 22.6 penalty minutes per game. In the four losses, they've surrendered 11 power-play goals on 37 opportunities.

"The biggest thing is not taking so many penalties, allowing the team to have power plays," Kolzig said. "The zones are bigger now, players have more room to move the puck around, subsequently, they are going to generate a lot of shots when the [penalty kill unit] starts getting tired."

Veteran defenseman Brendan Witt set a goal for his teammates: "We want to knock it down to 25 shots. Allowing 40 a night makes a lot of work for everybody."

The inordinate amount of time the Capitals have spent killing penalties is only part of the problem, players said.

Other factors include: the Caps' inexperienced defensive corps which, excluding Witt and Jamie Heward, had an average age of less than 22 years against the Lightning; adjusting to the new rules, which emphasize offense; and learning Hanlon's system, which, when executed properly, is simple and effective, but remains new to nearly everyone.

"It's going to take time and patience with this group to believe in the system," Witt said. "We've got to keep working at it until we perfect it. You have to know your [responsibilities]. If you make one bad read, the whole thing falls apart."

When it does, opposing forwards cruise into the Capitals' zone. Pucks don't get cleared out. Defensive assignments get missed down low. And ultimately, shots end up in the back of the net.

But Hanlon and his players have finally gotten the break in the schedule they've needed. After playing six games in nine days recently, the Caps have had no games since Sunday and play only twice in nine days, giving them plenty of time for practice and video sessions.

Yesterday at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, the forwards and defensemen skated separately so each unit could get more individual instruction from the coaches.

"It's nice we have these practices to work on things," right wing Brian Willsie said. "We jumped into a lot of games. If we can cut down on the shots, we'll be in a good spot. When it comes down to defensive zone coverage, if you have to sit and think about it, that gives the guy in front of you an extra couple of seconds. It has to become second nature. And that takes time."

Olie Kolzig plays in front of a defense that faces a league-worst 39.3 shots per game and yields 4.71 goals on average.