Great moments in mucking, or nearer my God to Thee:

The puck slides toward Rod Langway the other night on Pollin's pond, and as he prepares to shoot, his buddy, Craig Laughlin, tries to blindfold the Toronto goalie.

Not in any of the obvious ways, for the Washington Capitals' offense does not include Capital offenses. The idea is for Laughlin to plant himself directly between the puck Langway is about to launch and the poor netminder.

Ideally, Laughlin will be a sweaty shadow as the puck leaves Langway's stick and comes whistling goalward. Closer . . . and closer . . . and closer until -- zzzzzzzzzap! -- Laughlin jukes out of the way and the puck sails by the bedazzled Toronto goalie and in. Can't catch what you can't see.

Nice notion; not close to reality, though, for all the while a Toronto tough is trying to belt Laughlin from the chaotic crease to the soft-pretzel stand.

So when Langway actually does shoot, several merry men make mayhem near the goal. And as Laughlin later told it:

"The puck hit me, then hit somebody else and went back to Alan (Haworth), who pretty much had an open net to put it in because he (the goalie) couldn't see and (the other defender) was on top of me."

Laughlin smiled. "Pretty much the ultimate for a mucker."

Indeed, for it gave lie to the feeling here that on each goal in the history of hockey everyone within a mile or two of the arena got an assist.

Doug Jarvis, who passed to Langway, got one. So, naturally, did Langway. But not the man who had given his body for the cause.

Welcome to Mucker Country.

Some exploration is appropriate just now, because unless the Capitals tie their skate strings together and go goofus the next few months mucker figures to be the next Washington buzzword.

The coach, Bryan Murray, keeps calling his team "a bunch of muckers and grinders." The general manager, David Poile, all but has "muckers and grinders" stitched to the logo.

With any sort of luck, mucker will rank right up there with Hogs and those recent additions to the language of sport: package and scheme.

Those are football terms coaches use to make us think they do too coach. Package: how one team plans to advance the ball. Scheme: how the other guys want to stop it.

You'll recall the Super Bowl, how that brilliant package of Bill Walsh's ripped Don Shula's scheme to shreds.

As the Capitals stay atop the Patrick Division, look for the merits of mucking to be bandied about in salons and saloons.

Actually, it ain't such a hot job.

Muckers are the guys who dig the puck out of corners and direct it, according to Laughlin, toward "those guys who skate and shoot and dipsy-do."

The stars.

On most shots and power plays, you also will find a mucker near the net, trying to distract the goalie, wrapped not in glory but gore.

Hockey at least is honest about its second-class citizens. Up front, it calls them muckers, not "role players" (football) or "utility men" (baseball) or "princes of pine" (basketball).

Still, by any other name, Laughlin, Bob Gould, Gaetan Duchesne, Jarvis and some others are to the Capitals what Otis Wonsley is to the Redskins.

Celebrated, but also replaceable.

Executives talk fondly of special-teamers in football, gritty guys who dive for loose balls in basketball and pluggers who shore up the bottom of the order in baseball.

Mostly, the words are nonnegotiable.

For instance, there are no incentives for pure mucking on the Capitals. Not a $15,000 bonus, say, for Gould or Duchesne if they accumulate more than 125 scars in a season.

Gould sighs.

Somebody had to fetch pen and paper to Francis Scott Key. And if nobody notices the oboe player, an orchestra would be awfully bland without him. Besides, mucking beats the next alternative: unemployment.

"The major point about a mucker is lack of talent," Laughlin said. "Not a total lack of talent. But the overriding thing has to be energy. More heart than skill."

Laughlin did achieve a mucker's dream, selection as NHL player of the week. Still, he good-heartedly acknowledges the irony, that the honor was for dancing out of his element and scoring, not for what he does best: muck.

"Sometimes," Laughlin laughs, "I'll say (to Bobby Carpenter): 'You go in the corner and dig it out; I'll wait in the slot. I'll throw it in and you chase it.' He says: 'Nice try.' "

The Frank J. Selke Trophy, for "best defensive forward," is about as close as a mucker can get to immortality each year in the NHL. Jarvis won it last season.

Let's assume, for some wistful moments, that there was justice in hockey and that muckers were rewarded with trophies and showered with endorsement opportunities.

What would a mucker pitch?

"Beat-up cars," Laughlin said. "Rent-a-wreck."

And the shape of the fitting trophy for the mucker of muckers?

"An old army boot, bronzed up," Gould suggested. "That's what he does."

"A bandaged-up warrior," Laughlin said. "Bandages everywhere. A man in armor covered with wraps. Something like that."

If such a trophy were constructed, it surely wouldn't be presented between periods of a sold-out game. Nobody notices muckers, so the ceremony would take place in an empty arena after practice.

Since he's not paid to be graceful, our marvelous mucker would trip gliding to accept his soiled spoils. Giddy, he would seek his name on the trophy and discover it etched on an elbow pad.