During the Washington Capitals' difficult climb from ridicule to respectability, there has been one constant: the team is incapable of getting off to a winning start.

Never in the Capitals' 12 seasons have they been above .500 after three games. Only once, with a 3-2-1 record in 1980, have they been on the plus side after six, and that was followed by a nine-game winless streak.

The last two seasons, when they moved into the NHL's upper echelons with 101 points each time, the beginnings were forgettable.

In 1983, the Capitals lost the first seven and were not able to better .500 until Jan. 11. A 14-game unbeaten streak in January and February lifted them to a second-place finish in the Patrick Division.

Last year Washington was 6-8-5 in late November, when the team suddenly became the NHL's hottest, going 28-5-3 before it stumbled to second place down the stretch.

Smart people are supposed to learn from the past, and General Manager David Poile and Coach Bryan Murray are no dummies. But their attempts to alter the trend continue to prove unsuccessful, with the current Capitals 0-3.

The last two years, the Capitals felt they needed to win exhibition games to sell tickets. So they used regulars most of the time against mixed bags of opposition and posted records of 8-1-2 and 8-2-0, respectively.

Since they stumbled out of the gate both times, theories were circulated claiming that the regulars had been overworked during the preseason, or that they had become overconfident through meaningless victories.

This year, the Capitals rested their regulars, often barely icing the minimum 10 required by the NHL, and the 2-5-1 exhibition record was the team's poorest.

Despite the change, the early-season slump arrived on schedule. The Capitals have lost three straight to the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, and unless they win at Toronto Wednesday, the panic button could be working.

Poile continues to try to arrange a trade to get an established scorer. But he has been unsuccessful since summer. Anyone with a scorer to spare has limited ideas of compensation -- Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Mike Gartner, Bob Carpenter or Bengt Gustafsson.

Asked if he was hounding Poile to get him another goal scorer, Murray laughed and said, "As a coach, you're always asking for that. But I believe David has brought up the subject more than I have. We have guys on this club who can score. They're just not taking advantage of their chances.

"We do have to get some guys going, particularly in the area of goal scoring. It seems as though the guys we don't consider goal scorers are getting the better chances, and not finishing. Guys who are good around the net, like Bobby Carpenter and Dave Christian, aren't getting many chances."

As part of a new program, Murray is sponsoring postpractice sessions for invited players with Terry Murray and Ron Lapointe as instructors.

Over the first three games, the Capitals have outshot the opposition, 93-66, while scoring five goals and yielding 12. Washington's goaltending has been ordinary while John Vanbiesbrouck of the Rangers, Chico Resch of the Devils and Pelle Lindbergh of the Flyers have alternately resembled Billy Smith.

There is a feeling that the Capitals make goaltenders look good by repeatedly taking undemanding shots. Only two Capitals have scored goals -- Gartner, with three, and Gustafsson, with two.

"Every year we've tried to do things a little differently and every year we've struggled," Murray said. "Maybe with a hard-working, grind-it-out team early in the year the hands are not there. We have a lot of guys capable of scoring goals, but it seems to be a timing thing. Dave Christian I'm sure will put away, in a couple of weeks, shots that were just off target Sunday night. Maybe we're pressing a little at this point."

Left wing Andre Hidi and right wing Bryan Erickson, who were called up Sunday because of injuries but did not dress, were returned to Binghamton of the American Hockey League.