Maybe the Capitals were cursed by some voodoo doctor from Saskatoon for all these years (as Abe Pollin suggests with a chuckle).

If not, then they played so poorly so long because too many no-talent players were led by no-luck coaches. The newspapers have been full of such deduction (as Capital crazies know), and now comes one of the deducers to say, "It is no longer a sign of lunacy to write Capitals in the same sentence with the words Stanley Cup."

It took Abe Pollin nine years to get it right after making several self-confessed personnel mistakes that hamstrung the Capitals. Where have you gone, Milt Schmidt? Phone home, Tom McVie.

But when Pollin finally did it right, he did it spectacularly. The hiring of Bryan Murray as coach and David Poile as general manager has transformed a laughingstock team into a Stanley Cup contender. That is a tough enough job. To do it in one season, as these Capitals have, is the stuff of magic that made the '69 Mets special.

This time last winter, Pollin maintained a radio silence so strict he didn't get quoted in the papers for nearly a year. A newspaperman's day was not complete unless he tripped over a rumor that Pollin wanted to sell the Capitals.

"I haven't talked about selling at all," Pollin said yesterday when someone asked if the For Sale sign had been taken down. A hint of a smile played across Pollin's face, for only a year past the Capitals' darkest hour he now walks in the sunshine of happiness.

"It feels great," he said, "after having suffered with the team for nine years to finally have a team that is competitive. And even more than competitive. The team has a chance to go all the way. Any team that gets in the playoffs has a chance to go all the way. We demonstrated that in '78 with the Bullets. We got better as the year went on and ended up with the NBA championship.

"I'm not predicting, obviously, a Stanley Cup. But anything is possible and we do have a very good team. We can beat anybody. It is no longer a fluke when we beat people like the Flyers and Islanders. It all makes me very happy for the fans who have stuck with us all these years, very happy for the community that stuck with us and happy for the businesses that underwrote games.

"Their faith has paid off, and it's a very rewarding kind of feeling."

Ugly ducklings for so long they began to quack, the Capitals changed their webbed feet for real NHL skates only last season when Murray replaced Gary Green. Pollin's promotion of Murray from the Capitals' minor league club at Hershey seemed to make no sense to suffering crazies who wanted a real hockey name, a Don Cherry or a Fred Shero.

Pollin now admits he talked to Murray "as a courtesy" due an employe looking to move up.

"I interviewed two other men with much more NHL experience," Pollin said. "But Bryan, in one morning interview, convinced me he was a winner, a disciplinarian, everything I was looking for. It was a gut decision on my part. I just felt he could do it. And his coaching has been a major factor. He's an outstanding coach."

Over the summer, after another winter of discontent, Pollin considered selling the Capitals. He says a Save the Caps Committee and community support (in the form of ticket subsidies and tax breaks) swayed him to keep the team. A new investor, Dick Patrick, was made executive vice president.

"It was Dick's recommendation that I hired David Poile," Pollin said, citing Patrick's longtime family connection with the NHL when he added, "Dicks contacts in the league told him David was the best available man for the job."

So Pollin hired Poile, the assistant general manager at Calgary, and Poile quickly created a trade that completed the Capitals' transformation. Poile traded Pollin's favorite player, Ryan Walter, along with veteran Rick Green to Montreal for all-star defenders Rod Langway and Brian Engblom (along with Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin).

It was very difficult for me to approve that trade," Pollin said. "It took three days for Dick and David to talk me into it. I was very fond of Ryan. He was the team captain and he is a great player. But after talking it over at great length, I decided it probably made sense.

"In order to get something to turn the team around, we had to give up something. I approved the trade at first with great reluctance but then with great expectations. Knowing that our defense was weak, getting guys like Langway and Engblom really strenghened our team."

While the Capitals have moved to true championship contention, attendance has risen only minimally, now averaging 11,975 after last year's 11,378.

"From the standpoint of dollars, we have picked up considerably," Pollin said, "because we're no doing all the giveaways and discounts now. Financially we're much better than in the past, and I'm looking forward to the balance of the season, with us fighting for second place.

"I have always said, and so have my colleagues around the NHL, that Washington is a prime hockey market that, when you have a really good team, the fans will come out. Now we're waiting for the Washington fans to prove everybody right.

"At this point last year, I wasn't sure there would be a team here this year. Now ther's no question the team should be here. We have exciting hockey now, winning hockey, and it can go nowhere but up. We have the right ingredients for continuing improvement."