The only thing more confusing than the Washington Capitals these days is the weather.

General Manager David Poile is confused, because what he thought was a first-place team has dropped four straight games and is stumbling along at a sub-.500 pace.

Coach Bryan Murray is confused, because he cannot seem to find the right combination of players to turn things around, despite repeated attempts at juggling lines and defensive combinations.

The players are confused, some because of unaccustomed criticism from above, others because of what they consider insufficient ice time and several because they are tired of skating with new linemates every night.

Most confused of all are the fans, who know the team has abundant talent, were pumped up by a 5-2 start and have now seen a gradual disintegration, to the point that in the first period of Wednesday's 3-2 loss to injury-riddled Pittsburgh, the Capitals managed only one shot on goal.

Despite frustration that has led him to chew out some of the players, Poile insists he has no plans to make personnel changes, other than a reconsideration of the roles of seldom used Garry Galley, David Jensen and Ed Kastelic. But he is demanding that the players bear down.

"Our effort is inconsistent," Poile said. "Something I personally will demand is that we reach a higher level of consistency from our work ethic. I cannot accept anything except total effort; that's a philosophy I always have shown in running this hockey club."

In refraining from any "produce or go" ultimatum, Poile said he still thinks the present team is as good as any in the National Hockey League and he feels that the number of new players dictates a waiting period before the team comes together.

"We have shown at times that we can be as good as any team in the NHL," Poile said. "Unfortunately, those periods have been few and far between. We have a lot of new players -- nine of our 23-man roster played less than 40 games as Capitals before this season -- and I don't recollect many situations where a team gets in synch real fast. It takes time.

"I'm not making any plans as far as changes right now. I talk to other managers every day and I'm always open to listen to anybody, but that's not foremost in my goals or my plans.

"I'm centered on getting the present cast to playing to their abilities. That is foremost in my mind. We have a good hockey club; I believe it and the players believe it.

"Unfortunately, the reality at the moment is that we're not playing anywhere near our capabilities. It's a combination of big mistakes, often by our better players, and a lack of the big play, and that's a deadly combination."

The players are not unaware of the fact that they are far from reaching their potential as a team. There are questions about responsibility, however, with some forced into roles they do not like and cite as excuses for lack of production.

The dressing room was closed in Pittsburgh after the mandatory media visit and voices were being raised inside, as achievers apparently exchanged thoughts with nonachievers.

Captain Rod Langway, who has been known to call team meetings to air wounded feelings when the team is in a rut, said this gathering was not that type, but "just talks."

Langway said, "We're still working hard, but we might be disorganized. Every year we keep plugging at it till it clicks. At least we have great goaltending this year; we just keep missing {the net} out there.

"It's a long season and that's part of it. You can't always have what you want early. You have to look at it in perspective. No matter how many lines or defensive pairings you use, the guys on the ice have to put out and the guys on the bench have to support the guys on the ice."

Murray has enjoyed success in the past by juggling positions and lines, with such successful experiments as the shift of Bengt Gustafsson from left wing to center, Dave Christian from center to right wing and Alan Haworth from right wing to a productive center for Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin.

Haworth is gone, however, and Murray's magic touch has not been in evidence of late. The last two occasions in which he revamped everything, before the Quebec and Pittsburgh games, were not memorable.

"As a coach, you try to pat some guys on the back and kick some other guys in the butt," Murray said. "But as far as something tangible for you to contribute, I guess switching the lines around is No. 1. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't."

Murray admitted there was not much left that he had not tried, saying, "It's just frustrating. We've gone through it before, but it's unfortunate coming after a good start."

At least the schedule is favorable for a turnabout if everyone concerned pulls together and -- more important -- puts the puck in the net once in a while. The Capitals have managed only one equal-strength goal during the four-game losing streak.

Minnesota, winless at Capital Centre over the past four years, is Saturday's visitor. Next in line on Tuesday is Detroit, with one success here in six years.

Certainly, the Capitals can count on their experience in escaping the doldrums. Each year, they seem to struggle early, although the 5-2 start this time made most people feel those days were over.

"Every year we go through stretches like this," said alternate captain Bob Gould, "and it always seems to turn around. But this one has been pretty long. Hopefully, two or three wins will put us on the right track."