The Washington Capitals' record book lists defenseman Robert Picard in a number of categories, all related to scoring. In three seasons here, he totaled 42 goals and 114 assists, but his plus-minus rating was something discussed only in whispers.

Tonight at 7, Picard returns to Capital Centre with the Winnipeg Jets, an improved club that is battling Calgary for second place in the suddenly scary Smythe Division. Before the Jets played in Boston yesterday (winning, 4-3), Picard owned a plus-18 rating, best on the team. The only other man in double figures -- at least on the plus side -- was partner Randy Carlyle, at 14.

"Here and there, we've been split up, but Randy and I are together in most of the tough spots," Picard said by telephone from Boston. "It helps both of us. We have enough experience that we know how to compensate for each other. When we came to training camp, we worked on a lot of things and it's been paying off."

A 2 1/2-year sojourn in Montreal helped Picard mature as a defenseman, but at the time it was a downer. Dealt to Toronto by the Capitals for Mike Palmateer, he was shuffled along to Montreal for Bunny Larocque and eagerly looked forward to playing in his home town. He quickly felt the pressure.

"In Washington, there hadn't been much pressure," Picard said. "I was young and having fun all the time. The first year, I was tagged the franchise. I had a great second year and a good third year. There was pressure because we weren't winning that much, but I was worried more about myself than the team.

"If I got two goals, I wasn't worrying about how many goals the other team scored. There were so many guys coming and going, we never got things going as a team anyway.

"But in Montreal, everything was emphasized as a team, and I had to adjust. The toughest thing was playing defense. In Washington, I was always up the ice and the idea was just to put the puck in the net. I'd get caught a lot, but that was just part of the game.

"It was a different game in Montreal. You had to take care of your job and not be all over the ice. Everything was emphasized as a team. It finally sunk into me, maybe because I was getting older, but I also had a lot of help from Jacques Laperriere and Brian Engblom and Rod Langway.

"There was a lot of pressure on me, because I was from there and I had so many friends there. If I had a bad game, I had to face them and it was eating me up inside. It was hard to cope. But (General Manager) Serge (Savard) was really nice to me and he gave me another chance, sending me to Winnipeg.

"The franchise has been a little shaky and we know we have to win, but there's no pressure like in Montreal. I had a tough time the last two or three years, but I'm coming out of it now and I'm playing a lot of hockey. Maybe if I was still in Montreal, I'd be out of hockey. Now I hope I can play four more years."

Picard and the slimmed-down Carlyle played more than either desired for several weeks while Tim Watters nursed a broken wrist. The Jets, lacking in depth, dipped during that stretch, but with Watters back in a playing cast they have picked up momentum once again.

"We had been going with six defensemen and we dropped to four," Picard said. "In that span, we had three games with Edmonton and two with Calgary. When you're playing with six and drop to four, it makes it really tough against skating teams like that.

"We haven't been able to beat either one of them. We're 0-5 against Edmonton and 1-4 against Calgary. It seems like we're playing them all the time, which is the reason I don't like the unbalanced schedule. If we were in the Norris Division (as Winnipeg was before Colorado moved to New Jersey), we'd be in first place with a 10-point lead."

On the Jets' last visit to Capital Centre, on Dec. 7, Picard scored with 1:36 left to snap a 5-5 tie and Winnipeg finished off a 7-5 victory with an empty-net score. Picard also had two assists and clearly was the game's top player, although voted only No. 3 star.

"That was probably the best game I ever played there," Picard said. "Rod Langway was the No. 1 star and afterward I was kidding him about being No. 1 instead of me. He said he couldn't figure it out, either.

"The only thing I don't like about going to Washington is the way some of the people yell at me, things like, 'Where will you be next year?' I worked hard for those people when I was there and I never asked to leave.

"I enjoyed playing there and I had a lot of pride wearing that sweater. In the back of my mind, I think still that I'd love to have stayed there. I don't want to go back to Toronto or Montreal, but if I were traded to Washington, I wouldn't be upset.

"I like Washington. I like the area and I like the people. Hey, if I hadn't played hockey in Washington, I never would have met my wife."


Tonight's game was listed on some early schedules as a day game, but was shifted to make room for Georgetown-Arkansas at 1 p.m. . . . Pat Riggin will be in the Capitals' net tonight . . . Defenseman Darren Veitch, still nursing sore ribs, is expected to return Tuesday in Toronto . . . Like Washington, Winnipeg had three players voted to the NHL All-Star Game: Carlyle, center Dale Hawerchuk and right wing Paul MacLean.