In an era in which special teams are more important than ever, the Washington Capitals' power-play and penalty-kill numbers simply aren't adding up.

They've scored six times on the power play in nine games; opponents have scored 19 against them. It's not the only reason for the Capitals' early-season struggles, but their special teams malaise certainly is a big part.

"There's two things that hurt us," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said after practice yesterday. "First, our guys don't get the same respect [from referees] as a 15-year veteran. I don't care what anyone says, but there's no possible way Mike Green and Steve Eminger get the same respect.

"Secondly, it's controlling the puck. The amount of time that we spend in our zone, something bad is going to happen. You have two referees looking at one small zone instead of up the ice, so you're not going to get away with anything."

And the Capitals aren't.

The NHL's most talked-about rule change isn't really new, but rather a more strict interpretation of what constitutes an obstruction penalty. The crackdown is intended to create more scoring by deterring less-talented players from bogging down ones with more skill.

The rebuilding Capitals lead the league in minor penalties with 85, of which 42 were for hooking, interference, holding and holding the stick.

The Capitals' 29th-ranked penalty-kill unit has permitted 19 goals in 78 short-handed situations. Only Anaheim, entering last night's games, had a lower percentage of kills, having yielded 16 goals in 60 short-handed situations.

On Saturday, the Hurricanes scored on 3 of 12 power plays in a 4-0 victory at MCI Center. The visitors enjoyed 17 minutes 40 seconds on the power play.

"We've looked at all of the penalties, and they all for different reasons," Hanlon said. "Some of them are for carelessness, some of them are very questionable calls, some of them are recovering from mistakes. So many teams work hard to beat us, we can't beat ourselves from within."

Eminger, who was called for three penalties against Carolina, said: "Definitely [with] a more experienced, older team, the refs are going to be more lenient. But if you look at some of our penalties, they are penalties. So it's the refs being tough on us, and us taking dumb penalties."

As if skating a man down weren't detrimental enough, there's a side effect to taking too many penalties: It prevents Hanlon from deploying his best offensive players, such as Ovechkin, Jeff Friesen and Petr Sykora, who are reduced to spectators as the penalty killers get to work.

"It's killing our ability to stay fresh, it's killing our ability to get certain people out on the ice that are important guys," defenseman Jamie Heward said. "There are some guys who don't kill penalties, [so] by the time they get back out there their legs are dead, their jump is gone."

Heward added that penalty-prone teams are finding that the bigger offensive zone, expanded by four feet under the new rules, has given offensive players more room. And that makes it tougher to clear the puck out the zone.

"People are saying, 'We've got to get the puck out, we've got to get the puck out,' " he said. "But with that extra room, it's not that easy."

Center Jeff Halpern added: "It works two ways. We're so gun-shy now, it's harder to engage guys in our own end. We're afraid to put our stick on someone, because when we have, [the referees] have made the call. And the more time we spend in our own end, the more likely you are to take one of those penalties."

Compounding the Capitals' special teams problem is their stagnant power play.

They haven't scored a power-play goal since Ovechkin's tally on a two-man advantage in the third period of the fourth game, a 3-2 win over the Rangers. That's a span of 310 minutes 57 seconds.

In all, the Capitals have scored six power-play goals in 50 opportunities. Twenty teams have had more chances.

The Capitals' main power-play unit, which consists of Heward, Dainius Zubrus, Andrew Cassels, Ovechkin and Halpern, certainly has enough talent. It simply is not in sync at the moment, the players said.

"Nobody is out there not trying," Heward said. "Even though it might look at it sometimes when we're all disorganized. We're not clicking right now, but it's not from a lack of effort. All it's going to take is one goal."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brendan Witt was excused from practice so that he could tend to his family and house in South Florida, which was affected by Hurricane Wilma.

"Nobody is out there not trying," Jamie Heward, right, shown with goaltender Olie Kolzig and Mike Green, said of the struggling special teams.