When their followers list the reasons why the Washington Capitals have become as good as they have, you'll hear a lot about defense, selflessness, control and Rod Langway, and little about the fact that there are no real "lifers" on the roster.

Lifers? How about half-lifers?

Only two players -- Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson -- have been with the Capitals for six of the franchise's 11 seasons. No one has been around longer than that.

This is no coincidence. It is a team policy: winning germinated by having no losers around, no one to remind the Capitals of their inglorious past.

Those who do remember what it was like to lose don't talk about it in team meetings. It's almost as if the first eight teams of this franchise didn't exist. When you ask one of the holdovers about the change from bad to good, you pry it out of the deep, dark recesses of his mind.

"It's easier when you win," said Gustafsson. "When you're losing, there are team meetings all the time, trades, people moving up and down to the minors. You come home, you feel depressed, your wife's sitting there. She says, 'What's wrong with you?' You say, 'It was just a bad practice today, the coach was yelling again.' It's a lot easier now. We talk about other things."

Recent good times aside, there has been an awful lot of losing packed into a decade of ice time at Capital Centre and other rinks around North America. At the end of eight of the previous 10 seasons, the Capitals skidded off the ice with more losses than victories. And, slowly but surely, the players who were responsible skidded out of town.

Now, with three games to play before the playoffs (including tonight's game at Hartford at 7:35), the Capitals are the proud owners of the third-best record in the National Hockey League and the third consecutive winning season in their history.

And it just so happens that most of the players on the team have been with Washington for just one, two or three seasons.

For most of them, the Capitals' losing ways are as foreign as Vietnam is to a high school senior; i.e., only a vague memory.

"I hope it's a total change," said Langway, the team captain who arrived from Montreal for the 1982-83 season, the one in which the losing stopped and the winning started.

"We should be winners. As a group, the Caps were a bad team once, just because they didn't have the talent at the time. This is a process of working through the system to finally get enough talent to win. Now, that's happening here."

As soon as he became coach in 1981, Coach Bryan Murray took one look at the 26-36-18 team he had and decided winning only would begin with a healthy transfusion of new blood.

"We made a very definite effort to cull a lot of these people out and bring in younger players like (Scott) Stevens and (Bobby) Carpenter and other people out of the draft," Murray said.

He says now he was looking for winners.

"When we made the trade with Montreal (for Langway, Craig Laughlin, Doug Jarvis and since-traded Brian Engblom), one of the discussions at the time was, 'We're bringing in some guys who have won and that's very important.' And they helped instill that type of attitude around here."

For most of the Capitals, there is no comparison with the bad old days. There are posters to sign and fan clubs to speak to and commercials to tape, all the trappings of winning; "the snowball effect," Murray calls it.

But Gartner remembers. "The losing stigma kind of tainted us," he said. "Now, I'd say the biggest change is not my attitude, but people's attitudes toward us. Now, when we go onto the ice, they are thinking not win or lose, but how will we win, how will we lose."

And Gustafsson remembers. "It was not pleasant. I just wanted to get practices and games over with. And we weren't relaxed. If you're not relaxed, you're doing things you're not supposed to do."

The puck bounces off your stick in front of the net. The pass misses the teammate. The bad penalties mount up. These are the things losers do. And the Capitals don't do them now, Gustafsson said.

"If you are relaxed, and we are, everything is moving smoothly for you," he said.

Which is not to say pressures don't exist. "The pressures rattle around the dressing room and they rattle around the Capital Centre," said Murray. "There are different pressures now . . . I'm sure that any team that wins finds that. Georgetown found that the other night."

But there is winning and winning. "The expectations of the media and the fans today is that it's too bad you didn't beat the Flyers for first place," Murray said.

He says he now has to devise new drills, "a more complex system, more complex ideas."

"When you're with a losing team, they're satisfied to get into a rut, to get very little information, not to be pushed," Murray said.

The old Capitals, yes. The new Capitals, no.

"Let me tell you," Murray said. "These people want to be pushed."