When a hockey team hasn't made the playoffs for eight years, loses an average of more than $2.5 million a season and has been put on the auction block by its owner, there's plenty of blame to go around.

The Capitals' Mike Palmateer is willing to accept some of it.

"There are a lot of people you can fault when something like this happens," said Palmateer, a goalie with the Capitals the last two years. "But you can probably blame the players themselves, I guess, because if we had had a winning team we would have never gotten into this situation."

Palmateer summed up the players' reaction to owner Abe Pollin's recent attempts to unload the team for an asking price of $7.5 million: "We just have our fingers crossed."

Like Palmateer, most of the players reached this week said they were very much in the dark about the Capitals' apparent change of fortune. Pollin has always been willing to ride out the team's bad luck before. But $20 million in losses and a 163-375-102 record is a lot of bad luck.

Still, a recent groundswell of fan support has prompted Pollin to reconsider his publicly stated intention to sell the team. Late last week, the Capitals' owner told an organizer of the Save the Caps Committee that if public support for the team continues to run high for the next two weeks, it might be enough to keep the team here.

Pollin told organizer Larry White that he had received hundreds of letters and phone calls, but did not explain how such interest could help save the franchise.

"From a player's standpoint, there is very little you can do but sit and hope and wait," said Pat Riggin, whom the Capitals acquired along with Ken Houston in a trade with Calgary last month. "You have to sympathize with the owner because he's lost all that money. If the club can just win some games, there's no reason why it can't make money."

Bobby Carpenter, one of the Capitals counted on by Pollin to lead the team to respectability, was sympathetic, too.

"I can understand where Mr. Pollin's coming from, and I can't really blame him," said Carpenter, the team's No. 1 draft choice last year. "For Mr. Pollin, it's purely a business deal. And it's just not panning out."

Riggin has been through this before.

The goalie was with Atlanta when the Flames moved to Canada. "You never heard too much about it (financial trouble) there, but all you had to do was look around at the stands to know the team was in trouble.

"Washington, though--I remember playing the Caps in the last or next-to-last game of the 1980 season, and if they'd won, they would have made the playoffs. There were 16,000 people in the building. People followed the team, they supported it so well, considering it never made the playoffs. I always think of the Caps with that big crowd," Riggin said.

While they assigned blame liberally, most players said they could hardly fault the fans.

"Hockey would certainly go there if they could just come up with a winning team," Carpenter said.

"The fans are probably the best thing the Caps have going for them," said Ryan Walter, a team captain and veteran of four years with the Capitals. "They've been very patient and given us a lot of support, considering."

Most players still hold out hope for the franchise that Pollin once promised would remain in Washington until the year 2000. But not much.

"We've all seen some problems, but I never thought it was bad enough to worry about," Palmateer said. "This kind of thing (selling the team) never even struck my mind until last month, and then it became something to be afraid of."

"It would be a shame if the whole thing ended like this," Walter said. "Everybody laughs at you when you're positive, but we're not far off. When you go through hard times, you come away with a lot of pride. They say losing builds character. Well, we've built a lot of character."

Scott Stevens agrees with Walter--although he might not know any better.

Stevens, the team's No. 1 draft choice this year, says Washington "seems like a nice city." But Stevens has never been here and can't recall ever seeing the Capitals play. So he's a little more easily deluded.

"They're young, and could move up really fast the way the Islanders did," he said. "You never know."

For now, with the season three months away, the players are in limbo, wondering whether Pollin's commitment is strong enough to weather the latest squall.

"I don't want to think about the team maybe moving," Riggin said. "While playing in Atlanta and Calgary, I rented homes in those places. I bought a place in London, Ontario, where I spend summers. But hopefully that will change with the success of the Caps. I hope to make my home in Washington year-round."

But Walter, whose identity is more sewn up in the Capitals than most players', was more pragmatic.

"We will go where he tells us. Our fate is in his hands," Walter said. "Mr. Pollin has always been very fair, and there's just not much left for him to do.

"If he sold us, everybody would certainly be disappointed. After all, this is our team and our destiny. But if he sells us, that's it. We pick up and away we go."