The Washington Capitals reduced their roster to 22 players yesterday by assigning right wing Bryan Erickson to Binghamton of the American Hockey League.

The move was unrelated to Saturday's 4-0 loss to Buffalo, since Erickson sat out that game, as well as Thursday's 5-4 victory over the Rangers in New York.

Erickson, who scored 14 goals in his first 34 games, had only one in the last 23 and lost his job to Lou Franceschetti, who plays a more physical style.

"He's got to be an offensive threat to play," said Coach Bryan Murray. "Other guys can do things in other areas. For example, if Gaetan Duchesne never scored a goal, he'd still be a valuable player. Butsy (Erickson), though, has to score.

"He started off well, but he hasn't shown the same jump lately. Maybe it's a size and strength thing, where he's been worn down as the season has gone along. He seems to have lost confidence in his offensive game. Before, he shot with authority; now he's tentative."

Murray said Erickson could be back before the March 12 deadline for finalizing NHL rosters, depending "on how he plays down there and how a couple of other guys play up here."

Erickson, who entered this campaign with high hopes following a solid performance in the Canada Cup, promised that he will be back.

"It's hard to put a finger on it," Erickson said. "My whole career, I've been a streak scorer, up and down. But this is the longest dry spell of my career.

"It's not the lack of chances, and it's not size and strength. But when you get only one goal in 23 games, you can hardly say it's just one of those things.

"When I was on the ice, I always thought I'd break out of it. I still had confidence out there. Maybe a change of scenery will help. I know I can score in this league and I'll be back to prove it."

Murray introduced some new puck-moving wrinkles during yesterday's practice, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the Mount Vernon Ice Rink. It was a reaction to Saturday's game, when the Sabres surprised the Capitals with a new checking pattern that the home club could not solve.

"They played a different game and we had trouble adjusting," defenseman Scott Stevens said. "Bryan told us what to do, but we kind of panicked. We have to be able to change our style if anybody does that in the playoffs. We have to learn to be able to change things."

"That was a great game to be exposed to, although it was too bad we had to play in it," Murray said. "Buffalo was using the same type of neutral-zone play that Montreal and Philly have gone to and hopefully we'll be able to adjust in the future.

"Last night they shut off our normal play in the neutral zone and encouraged our defensemen to carry the puck. Then they put them in a tough spot to make the second pass. We've been very basic and even though the adjustment was a simple little thing, we didn't respond. So today I gave them some options to use in the future.

"Over the next 16 games, we'll try to do some things to help in that area. We want to finish first in our division, because who we play in the first round would be somewhat different and it would be a real achievement for the organization.

"But we also have to get ready for the playoffs and occasionally in the next month we may switch things for a period -- nothing drastic, just a different pattern to help us expand our basic system."

The Capitals lead second-place Philadelphia by four points in the Patrick Division. Philadelphia still has one game in hand, after letting one slip away last night against New Jersey, so it is apparent the race could go right to the wire, possibly exhausting both teams for the playoffs to follow.

Goalie Pat Riggin, who has started 12 straight games, was given yesterday off. Al Jensen therefore saw considerable extra work and, although he still is having a bit of trouble going down for the puck, he seems ready to play when New Jersey visits Capital Centre Tuesday.

"I feel better every day," said Jensen, recuperating from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Feb. 7. "I should be ready Tuesday. I hope so."

"We'll make that decision tomorrow," Murray said. "If Al can't play, we'll have to do something."

Presumably, the "something" would be to bring Bob Mason back from Binghamton. Riggin, who was ill before Thursday's game in New York, obviously must get some rest before the playoffs, which begin with four games in five nights.