If the Washington Capitals are a Jekyll and Hyde team, as seems more pronounced with each performance, then defenseman Larry Murphy is the epitome of the situation.

The Capitals' last extended trip provided a perfect example of Murphy's double exposure. In Los Angeles, where Washington will resume play tonight, he was seemingly stuck in slush for all four Kings goals.

The next game, in Vancouver, Murphy was the best player on the ice. He had two goals and played a flawless defensive game. He scored the next night in Edmonton, too.

Murphy is by no means alone in his erratic performances and, today, team captain Rod Langway took the rest of the Capitals players to lunch after practice to discuss the situation.

As for Murphy, the Kings are aware of his skills. They drafted him in the first round in 1980 and as an NHL rookie he had 76 points, still his career high. His second season, he hit another peak of 22 goals, but six games into his fourth season he became a Capital, in a trade for Brian Engblom and Ken Houston. Los Angeles simply could not put up with Murphy's defensive lapses.

As a Capital, Murphy has improved defensively and, when he posted a plus-21 rating last season and finished the season in strong fashion, it seemed he had arrived. But he is minus-four now and that statistic detracts from the 14-goal, 28-assist effort that promises to give him his best offensive figures in three seasons with Washington.

"A lot of the plus-minus situation is the way the team's been playing," Murphy said. "Our penalty-killing and power play are better, but we're not as strong on equal-strength situations as in the past. That hurts your plus-minus power-play goals do not count and it's obviously hurt mine.

"My offensive statistics are an improvement over last year. I had a good finish last year and I'm trying to build on that. I do make mistakes -- you'll never stop making mistakes as long as you play this game.

"When you handle the puck a lot the way I do, you put yourself in a position to make a mistake that can be quite glaring, the kind everybody can pick up on. People tend to be quite critical sometimes. Naturally, I'm working to avoid them and I've cut them down."

While Coach Bryan Murray has benched Darren Veitch or Peter Andersson on occasion, he never has faltered in his faith in Murphy. Currently, he has paired Murphy with Rod Langway, which gives Murphy considerably more ice time -- and more opportunity to be in the spotlight.

"Playing with Rod doesn't make any difference in how I play," Murphy said. "But it sure makes a difference in how much I play."

Murray expects continued improvement from Murphy, whom he considers one of his key players.

"Peter Andersson and Larry were our third set of defensemen for a while, but Larry has to be above that," Murray said. "I moved him up and he responded. Against Edmonton and Montreal, he played great.

"More and more, he's been carrying a load for us. He seems to be doing more and he's started to look stronger and move the puck better.

"Larry is a real key guy for us. He does as much off the blueline as anybody. He gambles a lot, and he does get caught now and then. He has to become a consistent player to make the most of his ability."

Six of Murphy's 14 goals have come on the power play and, as a point man on the No. 1 unit, he is a cog in its success -- or failure.

"No power play can look great every time," Murphy said. "The best power plays in the league are the ones that can bounce back from a bad two minutes. If we have a rough power play, it seems to build up and we let it snowball. If we're streaking and doing well, it's because we're staying consistent."

If he still is far from a polished performer, Murphy this season is more relaxed on the ice. Oddly, some of the credit apparently must go to a new mouthpiece, specially molded to his bite by Dr. Peter Chorbajian and called Tru-Grid.

Chorbajian said the mouthpiece was designed "to keep the mandible totally relaxed so the player can get more oxygen than he normally would get."

"I have two pieces, one for sleep and one during a game," Murphy said. "It allows my bite to be even where normally it's not. A normal bite relieves tension and tension is a problem when you're playing.

"Dr. Chorbajian wanted to try it on a hockey player -- apparently, it's worked in other sports -- and I figured it couldn't hurt.

"I feel real confident with it. I don't know if it has anything to do with my play, but I'm comfortable and relaxed with it . . . I grind my teeth when I sleep and even if there was no benefit for hockey, I'd still come out ahead."