Although many were in a lynching mood Tuesday night, let's forgo capital punishment for the Washington Capitals a little longer.

It would hardly seem possible that, in their 14 seasons, any indignity had escaped the Capitals. They were born the worst of the bad and grew up to be the most disappointing of the good. However, one fate never befell the team, even in its darkest early days. It never lost, 1-0, in its own building.

Tuesday, the Capitals skated off the Capital Centre ice with the boos of their own fans in their ears -- jeers that had lasted intermittently for the final period-and-a-half as the Capitals failed to score on seven power plays and seldom managed any semblance of an attack. In the final 90 seconds, with Detroit a man short and Washington with six skaters, the Capitals were so inept they could not even attempt a shot.

That 1-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings dropped the Capitals' record to 8-9-1, including five losses in six contests. The team's first shutout in 125 games simply culminated the club's month-long slide into total offensive torpor.

At times like this, sports bosses wish they had never made preseason utterances. In October, the Capitals made it clear how they felt after signing Bengt Gustafsson and Peter Sundstrom from Sweden and trading for center Dale Hunter and goalie Clint Malarchuk from Quebec. This was surely the team to erase 13 luckless years of aggravation.

"We are not content to finish second in the Patrick Division," said General Manager David Poile. "We know our goal. Now, we have to go out and do it -- period."

"This is the best team we've had since I've been here," added coach Brian Murray. "A heckuva hockey team."

So, here we are again. Nobody at left wing can shoot the puck in the ocean. The rigor mortis of too much passing and indecision has the offense in the deep freeze. And all those brave predictions, followed by playoff flops, lurk in the Capitals' memory bank like a debt compounding psychological interest. These Capitals will break your heart. Right after they break their own.

Those who voted with their feet, by leaving early, and with their lungs, by hooting, Tuesday are well within their rights. The Capitals' work ethic and their endless mucking are estimable. But production matters, too. Hostile reaction is afoot in the community, and with just cause. "Everybody's down on us right now," said Craig Laughlin. "Brian's looking for answers. We're looking for answers. And nobody has the answers."

Maybe, come April, it will be obvious that the malaise that grips the Capitals is endemic and only treatable by dire and violent measures. Maybe this is a club with a hockey curse. Could the Capitals go down in NHL history as the industrious little engine that couldn't? Great on paper, they still have absolutely nothing on their ceiling to show for it -- not a single banner.

However, just one last time, let's listen to the Capitals before we pass out the blindfolds and cigarettes and hire a firing squad.

"I hope nobody pushes the panic button," said Laughlin. "I hope they don't feel they have to make deals and break this team up to get scorers . . . I hope my name's not under 'Transactions' tommorrow."

In fact, Laughlin, and other Capitals such as veteran Mike Gartner and Bob Gould, think this is exactly the time for patience. Maybe even for a few yawns in the face of the NHL's long and largely irrelevant season. "Right now, we're the best defensive team in the NHL," said Laughlin -- and the goals-against column bears him out.

"That's our identity. That's been our main goal since the first day {of camp}. The whole reason we're playing this style is for the eventual payoff. We're playing low-scoring, one-goal, playoff-type hockey games almost every night. It's either going to burn us out or it'll win us the Stanley Cup. Ever since I can remember, the best defensive team in the league always goes a long way in the playoffs. The Oilers are an exception. Teams like the kind that we're evolving into are the ones that are most successful."

"This was half of a very good game, not half of a bad one," said Gould after the 1-0 loss. Added Murray, "We should stick with what we have. They've gone through some hard {goal-scoring} times over the past three or four years, but they'll score a couple and it will snowball. This is the time to be positive and give encouragement."

"It's too early to be frustrated," said Gartner. "We're an older {veteran} team now. We tend to play only as hard as we have to play to win. That can pay long-range dividends. We had nine guys in the {September} Canada Cup series. That's 15 extra world-class games. It takes a lot out of us. It would be naive to think it's not going to show up at some point. The worst {fatigue} may even be yet to come. No sense panicking. Every game seems so important to us now and to the fans. But after the season, everybody always talks about how the regular season is almost meaningless."

Washington's hockey team may be developing a bit of an us-vs.-them testiness. And that's not always bad. "We thought we played one helluva game tonight," said Laughlin after the team's worst booing in memory. "As a fan, I probably would have liked to see 7-6 with 25 fights and a bench-clearing brawl. But we have to understand what we're trying to do better than that. We played Brian Murray's game to a T tonight . . . The feeling in here right now is, 'The hell with everybody and let's go get 'em.' I just hope we don't {eventually} get discouraged and start believing that our talent is way up here and our performance is way down low."

This may not be the year for the Capitals to have a 50-, or even a 40-goal scorer. Left wing may remain a vacuum. Galling, close defeats may recur too often. As for first place, the refrain may be -- "Curses, foiled again."

Still, the Capitals have made the commitment at every level to play a certain type of game. They want to be the toughest, hardest-working and, perhaps, most boring team in hockey, so long as that also makes them the best defensive club in the sport and one that feels at home in tight games.

"I hope we win all our points in the regular season by 1-0," said Laughlin, working himself up to a grumpy mood. "Then, I hope all our gunners get hot at the end and we win every Stanley Cup game, 10-1.

"That would be justice."