Doug Carpenter, the coach of the New Jersey Devils, and Bryan Murray, coach of the Washington Capitals, were roommates at McGill University in Montreal. They like and respect each other.

For the last three seasons, while his Capitals were wiping their feet on the lowly Devils, Murray went out of his way to find something nice to say about New Jersey. Saturday, after his newly feared Devils had defeated the Capitals, 4-1, Carpenter returned the favor.

"That's the best effort we've had, as far as consistency and smartness," Carpenter said. "It had to be, for us to beat a team like that. I think Washington is a very good hockey team.

"They have a veteran team, they have strength down the middle, a solid defense, excellent goaltending and they have quality people like {Mike} Gartner and {Dave} Christian on the right side."

One element was conspicuously absent from Carpenter's rundown of the Capitals, who have scored only 15 goals in the last seven games. That was left wing, a problem area for many years and still a spot that keeps Murray awake nights, trying to find the proper chemistry.

What Murray needs are left wings to play on lines alongside Bengt Gustafsson and Christian, Dale Hunter and Gartner.

Peter Sundstrom, the only consistently capable left wing, was promoted from the checking line to a spot with Gustafsson and Christian. The trio has not been effective and, at the same time, the shuffled checking line -- Mike Ridley centering Kelly Miller and Bob Gould -- appears to have suffered by the necessary shifting of Miller from right to left and Gould from center to right wing.

Greg Adams, the current left wing for Hunter and Gartner, has struggled except for a two-goal performance in Philadelphia. Michal Pivonka, designated as the Hunter-Gartner complement in training camp, has been hampered by a sprained wrist and a sore shoulder.

"We're going to have to try something else," Murray said yesterday. "I'll probably give Ridley another chance on the left side. He's most likely to fit in. They have to make things happen. Nothing's happening out there."

Already this season, nine of Washington's 14 forwards have been tried at left wing -- Sundstrom, Miller, Ridley, Adams, Hunter, Pivonka, Lou Franceschetti, Craig Laughlin and David Jensen. Hunter did a fine job, but Murray is reluctant to move him from center.

"Dale has played left wing with the Stastnys, but we got him to be a center iceman and I want to keep him there," Murray said. "He's so good at making passes and setting up guys. Unfortunately, we don't have the guy he used to set up -- Michel Goulet."

Another possibility is Gustafsson, a solid left wing for many years with the Capitals before he became an even better center.

"There's no question Gus is a good left wing, but we brought him back to be a center," Murray said. "We need him to set people up, which he does so well."

The problem, of course, is that the people Hunter and Gustafsson are setting up aren't scoring. Also, defenders are cheating a bit, often abandoning the left wing to increase pressure on his linemates.

There is a temptation for Murray to move Scott Stevens up from defenseman to left wing, where he has performed capably on the power play. But Stevens is doing such a good job right now that it probably would be unwise to tamper with him.

"I've talked to Scott about moving up on the power play, but we don't have the numbers on defense to make a permanent move," Murray said. "Besides, Scott has made it clear he wants to be a defenseman. If you move back and forth, from defense to forward and back again, it can throw you off. You may find yourself instinctively making a rush and getting in trouble."

The Capitals' best farmhands are centers and defensemen. The first left wing likely to be called up, Murray indicated, is Jeff Greenlaw, who has been hot and cold in Binghamton and has yet to display a scoring touch.

Another alternative is to make a deal for a left wing. General Manager David Poile has been working on that one for five years.