When practice concluded at the Mount Vernon ice rink yesterday, the Washington Capitals marched grimly into a small room and for 90 minutes behind a locked door endured what Mike Gartner called an "airing of our minds."

In the past week, the Capitals have been crushed by Detroit (7-0) and Toronto (5-2), the two worst teams in the National Hockey League. With the New Jersey Devils, third from the bottom, next on the schedule at sold-out Capital Centre tonight, Coach Bryan Murray called yesterday's session to try to avoid a flat trick.

When the door opened and the players emerged, there was such a convivial atmosphere that Murray might justifiably be accused of a brainwash job.

"I wish we could play the next 30 games tomorrow night," said winger Greg Adams in setting the tone for a series of positive reactions to only the third such session in Murray's 4 1/2 years as coach.

"I don't think this was a meeting to see how bad this guy was playing or how bad that guy was playing," said Alan Haworth, whose career-high 25 goals indicate he at least is playing better than ever. "It was to see how guys are getting along on the team, whether guys are enjoying themselves.

"I think it was a great meeting. We tried to leave the games behind and instead see whether anything was going on off the ice, whether there were any dislikes on the team. You know, if a guy's alone in front of the net and I won't pass him the puck because I don't like him.

"It wasn't a blowout, where Bryan gave one guy the business. He made us realize how lucky we are to be playing in Washington and how if things don't change, if we keep playing as bad as we are, then changes will have to be made.

"You only have so many years to win the Stanley Cup and we're not young chickens any more. I'm 25 and I'd like to win the Cup right now."

"Everything was brought out in the open and everybody said their own little piece," said Craig Laughlin, another winger enjoying his best season. "The idea was to get this team going and to find ways to win the Cup.

"That's the bottom line, how to win the Cup. When you lose games like those in Detroit and Toronto, something has to be done."

Team captain Rod Langway indicated he would call another meeting, for players only, when the team hits the road for two weeks in mid-February.

"This wasn't my typical meeting, but it was a good one and a lot of things came out," said Langway, who in the past has not shied away from talking to teammates who are not producing. "The coaches had a lot to say and we said a lot to them. We're not pushing the panic button, because there are still a lot of games left.

"This gets a lot of frustrations out and puts guys at ease. When you play 50 games-plus, you get annoyed at certain people and hold things in. When it comes out at a meeting like this, a guy says, 'Hey, I must have rubbed some guys the wrong way and I wasn't aware of it.' "

Although the players spend much time together on the road and at practice, they rarely get down to the specifics that apparently surfaced yesterday.

"A meeting like that brings up a lot of good points," Adams said. "A lot of things were repeated, but they were worth bringing up. It was a good time for the whole team to air things at once."

Murray was delighted with the players' response.

"I'm glad it happened," Murray said. "It came at a great time, because we play two games, then we have the all-star break and we can come back fresh with a chance to recreate our work ethic and enthusiasm. The players expressed concern that we as a group get back to our work ethic. We're regarded as a hard-working team and that's the only way we'll win on a consistent basis.

"The togetherness thing is important, having a regard for each other. Starting off, it's easy to be highly motivated and to work hard every night. Now that we're established, it's hard to be motivated every night, and it can be difficult to take criticism.

"The intent of this meeting was not to tear people down and there was not much individual criticism, except for a few players who pointed the finger at themselves. We needed to set our goals, to see what we can accomplish by the end of the year. I think this team has a lot of victories ahead of us."

One player with little to say was defenseman Scott Stevens, whose jaw is still sore from being struck by a shot off the stick of Borje Salming Wednesday night.

"My neck is stiff, but I feel a lot better today than yesterday," Stevens said. "Yesterday, I felt like I'd been hit by a basketball and if I bent over, I got light-headed. It's funny how a little puck can make you feel like that all over your head."

Goalie Al Jensen, unbeaten in 13 career decisions against New Jersey, will make his fourth straight start tonight. Pete Peeters remains incapacitated with a pulled stomach muscle. Blues 6, Red Wings 4

In Detroit, Bernie Federko scored two goals and Joe Mullen got his 27th of the year and two assists to lead St. Louis to the victory.

Mullen scored his goal -- the eventual game-winner -- on a centering pass from Ron Flockhart 1:56 into the final period. Sabres 5, Rangers 3

Doug Smith had a goal and an assist in his first game with Buffalo as the Sabres ended a four-game losing streak. Oilers 7, Flames 4

In Edmonton, Glenn Anderson scored his 36th and 37th goals of the season and Wayne Gretzky had four assists in the win over Calgary. Anderson's second goal, at 8:09 of the third period on a power play, was set up by Gretzky's pass from behind the Flames' net and was the game-winner. Canucks 10, North Stars 5

Tony Tanti and Stan Smyl scored two goals apiece and Petri Skriko had a goal and three assists as Vancouver outlasted visiting Minnesota. The Canucks have three victories and two ties in five games.