After winning seven games in a row, their longest winning streak of this season, the Washington Capitals traded their third-shift defensemen, Darren Veitch and Peter Andersson. The winning streak is now at eight. If it reaches 12, who goes? Rod Langway? At 15 in a row, do they fire Bryan Murray? Now that they're in first place, is anybody safe?

Most teams don't trade when they're hot. The cliche says: You don't break up a winning combination. "The easiest thing to do would have been nothing," said David Poile, the Capitals' general manager. "We'd won seven straight, we were playing our top hockey of the year. But it wouldn't have mattered if we'd lost seven straight. We needed to upgrade our defense." And Murray thinks when you're winning is the best time to make your best deal, particularly if you're swapping fringe players, as the Capitals were. "When you're winning, your lesser players are more marketable," Murray said. "They look better than they really are."

Fearful that their defense wasn't physical enough to withstand the rigors of the playoffs, the Capitals went shopping for tough, experienced defensemen, and came up with John Barrett and Greg Smith from Detroit, a franchise bailing water so furiously that its players wear bathing suits to practice. The fact that Smith and Barrett were part of the worst defense in the NHL tells you all you need to know about the Capitals' evaluation of Veitch and Andersson. "When we're in the playoffs, people physically challenge Rod Langway and Scott Stevens and try to get them into the penalty box," explained Murray. "We've had a tough time putting somebody else on the ice to fill for those minutes. We didn't have the people to carry us through those situations."

This isn't Mays for Mantle. It's more like picking two warm bodies from the waiver list so you can tinker with your long relief. Two third-shift defensemen are gone, and are replaced by two other third-shift defensemen. A small piece of the puzzle. But important enough that management risks upsetting a delicate balance so late in the season. "There's certainly a nervousness making a trade with only 14 games to go," Poile conceded. "The players you bring in, are they good character people? Can they fit in with what we're doing? And can they fit in, in a hurry?" A trade like this -- a move of rearmament as the Capitals overtly gird for possible playoffs against the Islanders, Flyers and Oilers -- is made for the strategic short term. "Fourteen games isn't enough time to judge a trade. You need a year. But we don't have it," Poile said. "They have to help us now."

The risk for management isn't so much on the ice. Murray said Andersson and Veitch were not going to play much in the playoffs, so any contribution Barrett and Smith make will be a plus. Following Tuesday's 5-3 victory over Pittsburgh, Murray was particularly enthusiastic about Smith: "He really looks like a solid guy." Murray felt Veitch and Andersson weren't tough enough. "We're hoping for a little bit different brand of hockey," Poile said, "to allow, or convince, Bryan to use them more than he used Darren and Peter."

If there is a risk, it's emotional. Andersson was with the team for three seasons; he had made close friends, particularly Bengt Gustafsson. Veitch was there much longer. This was his sixth season, and he was very popular among his teammates. Missing your friends is one thing, and is to be expected; grieving for them is another. How smoothly old friends handle this transition is a tea leaf to be carefully read. "If the trade upsets our chemistry, it's certainly a negative," Poile admitted. "I gave that a lot of thought. I think it's a good trade for the Capitals."

So far, so good. The players have not grumbled. They see trades, even those made just before the league deadline, as somehow part of the territory. "You're kidding yourself if you think you're safe in this game ever," Mike Gartner, the senior Capital, said. "Anyone can be traded. The mistake is worrying about it." Gartner was close with Veitch. "I'm sorry to see Darren go. I often wonder why a trade that hasn't been made for six or seven months suddenly gets made at the trading deadline. But that's when it seems to happen." Gartner grinned and shrugged diplomatically: "I'm just a player, not a manager."

Craig Laughlin was similarly upset at seeing his good friend Veitch traded, but eagerly anticipated Smith and Barrett. "These guys will play big and strong against Philadelphia. Darren was a little niftier. The playoffs are a different game, so tight-checking. These guys will grab and hook and hold. We need that." Laughlin's response -- professional first, emotional second -- is all that Poile and Murray could hope for. "Management thinks this is the trade that's going to get us to the Stanley Cup," Laughlin said excitedly. "I don't care what it takes to get us there, I want that ring."

Barrett and Smith saw nothing but welcoming faces in the Capitals clubhouse on Tuesday night. "You trade for people because you want them," Rod Langway was saying before the game. And afterward, having congratulated them on their play, Langway smiled broadly and said, "Right now they're in first place, same as we are."