What he does first is daub a dot of red paint on his forehead. Then he wraps a white towel around his head turban-like. Hockey players parade around the dressing room in white long johns, which means we now see Bob Girard looking pretty silly. Gravely, he places a towel on the floor and sits on it, cross-legged.

It is Buddha time for the Capitals.

"Mighty Buddha, we come to you tonight for help that only you can give," Girard says.

He tosses white powder into the air.

"Oh, mighty protector of all that is holy, we ask for your favors tonight in our battle against the unholy skaters from Montreal."

More powder, some of it frifting down to settle in Girard's mustache.

"We ask you to guide the sticks of your faithful servants, who are named Bobby G..."

Bobby G. is Bob Girard.

"... and Pic and Tommy, who have endured days without a goal. For many moons now, the unholy ones from Montreal have caused us to suffer and we ask you that we might win tonight."

With both hands, Girard throws up white powder.

We should explain here that the prayer, as reported, is a reconstruction. Only Capitals are allowed to hear Girard speak to Buddha. During hard times early this season, Girard was seized by inspiration and began beseeching Buddha on special occasions. If we can't report his plea word for word, we know enough to say that if Bobby G., Robert (Pic) Picard and Tommy Rowe were to score against the Canadiens, the next communication with Buddha would include thanks for the favors.

The cold type in the newspaper suggests a hell on ice. The Capitals have won more games than only three of the 17 National Hockey League clubs. Of 30 home games, they have won only 10. They have scored 209 goals, which is seventh best in the league, but they have given up 265, which beats only one club. An expansion team now in its fifth season, the Caps still have not beaten Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston or the N.Y. Islanders.

Those who lived through it can not forget the debilitating, humiliating winless streak of last season. The Caps went 20 games without a victory. They were 0-for-40 days.

"Holy gee, the memories, bad ones," said Picard, then a rookie No. 1 draft choice who really didn't want to leave Canada. "I wish for anyone who plays hockey they never go through that. In the dressing room, nobody talked. Never. In practice, if you do one mistake, the coach would come up to you with his eyes this wide..."

Picard cupped his hands in front of his eyes, as if encircling hockey pucks.

"... and he'd say, "That's the way you play in games, too.' Everybody was blaming everybody else for losing. If somebody got the chance to knife somebody to get his job, if you're losing, he would do it.

"But now, now you're seeing the nice way. This year, it is nice. We have nobody who, when you turn around, gives you the knife."

That old philosopher, George Allen, said losing was like dying and if losing didn't bother you, you were already dead. Allen was onto something there. He just went too far. Like winning, losing is habit-forming. If an athlete loses often enough, he may rail against it but the words mean nothing, for by years of losing he has accepted defeat as the normal order of things.

Expansion teams, such as the Caps, begin with other people's rejects, the aging lame and halt who know this new team is the last stop on a freight train to nowhere. They are dead, to use Allen's metaphor. They want only to hang on, to extend against all logic their lives in the areana, both for the money and the need to believe they are young and strong.

"Before, you could even sense it in the dressing room, the guys were negative," said Guy Charron, the Caps' elegant center, who at 30 was the team's oldest player until the recent acquisition of Dennis Hextall, 35. "Whether we were playing Montreal or what, they believed they would lose."

Not this year's Caps.

They are kids. The Caps have dumped five over-30 players who were on the roster this time last season. Three players 23 and under have joined up. For them this is no freight train to oblivion; this is a Supertrain, destination glory. If a terrible hockey team is a refuge against time for a man with hundreds of stitches in his face, it is a starting place for a kid certain he'll make the team into, say, the Montreal Canadiens.

"This team is positive," Charron said.

"With these guys, there is a lot of love for the game," said goaltender Gary Inness, 29, whose arrival in mid-December made the Caps better than ever. "There is a lot of love for winning here. And a lot of hate for losing."

The knife-in-the-back veterans are gone, replaced by kids, including three No. 1 draft choices and three No. 2s. The Caps, from February of last year to today, have dropped 12 men who averaged 29 and replaced them with 10 averaging 26. The wide-eyed coach, Tommy McVie, was fired the day before this season started and Danny Belisle was hired out of the minor leagues.

"The difference from last year to this is relaxation," said Gump Embro, the Caps' trainer.

He said that only a little while after amswering the phone and discovering that someone had covered the earpiece with Vaseline. He discovered the Vaseline only when he pressed it into his ear.

"Gi-RARD," Embro cried, correctly naming the perpetrator.

"Pic, do you have the Ragu sauce?" The rookie Ryan Walter, the Caps' No. 1 draft choice this season, walked into the townhouse he shares with Robert Picard, last year's No. 1.

"No, I thought you were going to stop for it," Picard said.

"That's okay," Walter said. "I'll make the sauce myself."

Whereupon Walter did considerable damage to innocent tomatoes and spread the remains over spaghetti remarkable for its refusal to be curled around a fork. This he served to a visitor, who, while grateful, busied himself taking notes and left the stubborn spaghetti to another use, say as shoelaces for ice skates.

Walter is, everyone says, the reason these Caps are thinking grand thoughts even when the cold type of newspapers say they are a terrible hockey team.

Walter is positive. When the Caps introduced him to the press on the occasion of his signing, Walter put publicity man Pierce Gardner to shaking. "He said, 'I don't know if I'm worth all this attention,'" Gardner said.

"I do things with actions rather than words," Walter said the day of the spaghetti. "At that point, I hadn't done anything for the Capitals. Why say anything?"

Since then, he has done plenty. In only 50 games (he missed training camp and some early games because of knee surgery), the center-left winger has scored 24 goals, second-best on the team. More inportant, he has shown maturity and poise beyond any reasonable expectation for a 20-year-old.

Walter is something special. He left home at 15 to play juniors in British Columbia. Picard's troubles last season were compounded by the face he played junior in Montreal and never left home until hired by the Caps. He even tried to sign a second contract with a Quebec team, to stay near home. But Walter has been on his own five years now and if he sometimes robs a tomato of its beauty, he and Picard make a wonderful domestic partnership.

"We haven't had a fight yet," siad Picard, who making a vanilla milk shake.

"We never will," siad Walter, chopping onions.

"Here," Picard said, offering his partner the milk shake. "Am I getting pretty good at it, or what?"

"Not bad for a rookie," Walter said.

"I wish my mother was here," the pround milk-shake-maker said.

Walter and Picard, 26, a defenseman -- along with the like of center Dennis Maruk, 23, defenseman Rick Green, 23, and right wing Tommy Rowe, 22 -- are the future of the Washington Capitals, and they have convinced at least one spaghetti victim that better days are coming.

"I'm positive we're going to have a Stanley Cup-winning team here," Walter said. "I've got Pic brainwashed, too. We're going to be there. If he ever gets down, I tell him that again."

"I always did believe in it," said Picard. "But I was too scared last year to say it. I always said it to myself: 'I'm going to be there.' As a youngster, I would say I'd be in the National Hockey League and everybody laughed at me.That's like with the Capitals. People are starting to believe in us. Before, people would talk about the Washington Capitals as a joke. Teams would figure they could score 20 goals on us.

"Now when teams come on the ice with us, they know they are in for some business."

Both Walter and Picard are boyishly handsome, Walter in a turned-up-nose way and Picard, with his permcurly hair and big brown eyes, somehow suggesting a Tom Jones on skates. If the 100-stitch faces are gone, taking with them the death of hope, these innocents dream wonderful dreams.

"It is easier to go out and lose, the way we used to when everybody was struggling for their life and job, than it is to be No. 1," Picard said. "It is far easier to go down the hill than to go up it and stay there."

"We are young players and we don't want to be here and lose forever," Walter said. He remembers being 5 years old and waking up at 3:30 in the morning, anxious for his 5 a.m. practice. "Young guys want to get along, to make dollars and win games. Even if I get to be 30 and have been through six million airports and 14,000 hotels, it is a fabulous life. We want to win, the young guys do, and we have instilled it in the team. It's a disease."

"A good disease," Picard said.

"I had the opportunity of going with a World Hockey Association team," Walter said. "But I could see the opportunity of growing with the Capitals. They started at the bottom and we have had hard times. But I see ourselves as the next New York Islanders."

The Islanders, an expansion team created only two years before the Capitals, have made the NHL playoffs four times and reached the semifinals three times. The Caps never have made the playoffs.

Picard and Walter say they do not read the newspapers.

"A headline said, 'Caps Playoff Hopes Vanish,'" Picard said. "Whoever wrote that is ignorant. We are 10 points behind the team we must pass to make the playoffs, and we play that team four more times."

Fact is, the Caps are 13 points behind the team, Pittsburgh, they must catch, and they meet only three more times. So any 100-stitch-in-the-face veteran knows that the Caps, who have won only one game this month, are unlikely to perform any miracles.

"We can do it," Picard insisted, and Walter, nodding agreement, took a drink of his milk shake.