One of the mysteries associated with the current plight of the Washington Capitals is the uninspired play of talented young defenseman Robert Picard during the first half of each season.

A year ago, Picard recorded 21 goals, 65 points and an impressive plus-three rating. He was selected for the Challenge Cup team, received some all-star votes and was generally considered a future superstar.

Now, two months into his third NHL season, Picard seems to be spinning his wheels. His failure to reach his potential, along with injuries and inconsistent goaltending, has been a key factor in the Capitals' inability to generate any progress toward playoff contention.

Wednesday night, Picard scored the second goal of the season and first in 28 games as the Capitals lost to the injury-riddled Hartford Whalers, 5-4. He also committed three egregious errors that contributed substantially to three Hartford goals, including the winner, and left his performance rating at minus 16.

Afterward, Coach Gary Green said that "they just capitalized on our mistakes, and we made enough of them." Green talked of the need for "intensity and drive" and added that "a system and being in the right place aren't enough without it."

Green did not speak specifically of Picard -- he refuses to criticize individual players publicly -- but the implication was there.

Picard himself, a bright young man in addition to a superior talent, is well aware that something is wrong. He has no solutions, merely some thoughts, some hopes, some bewilderment.

"I know something is wrong and I think by hard work I can get it back together," Picard said. "I never felt better physically in my whole life. When I skate in practice I feel great and I never worked so hard even when Tommie (McVie) was here.

"Sometimes I try to do too much. I'll play good for a period or period and a half and then I get caught. I just hope there's better days to come.

"I know if there are better days for me, there will be better days for the Caps. I was just starting to roll this time last year. I don't know why, but I've had a bad start every year."

A year ago, when he was compiling all those fancy statistics, Picard passed the 32-game mark with similar mediocre figures -- three goals, 15 points, minus 10. In his freshman NHL season, 1977-78, his totals after 32 games read one goal, 10 points, minus two.

Green realizes that a Picard turnabout is essential to the Capitals' playoff chances. He has tried to isolate the problem, to expedite a remedy, as yet without success.

"I know Pic can play better, you know it, everybody knows it," Green said. "i've talked to him about it, I've taken him out and discussed things with him. There's certainly no conflict there.

"It's deceiving to me. I've heard so much about how well he can play and I'm waiting to see it. I have to keep playing him and playing him a lot, and just hope he'll play the way we know he can."

Green has used Picard on both the left and right sides, whereas he strictly patrolled the left before. Picard considers the shift an asset, rather than a detriment.

"The first couple of games I had trouble trying to hit guys in the middle of the ice," Picard said. "You can't do it the same way. But I can see more ice from the right than the left. When I go behind the net, I can see more from the right side and I can do more."

Picard has had fewer shots on goal this season, while missing the net more often. This has contributed to his meager scoring figures, but it hardly represents the entire difference.

"Maybe they are checking me a little more on the point, I don't know," Picard said.

It has been a tough year for Picard and a tough year for the Capitals. Unless there is a quick about-face, commencing with tonight's 8 p.m. Capital Centre contest against Vancouver, it is going to get a lot tougher.