The Washington Capitals have completed the first quarter of the National Hockey League's regular season with a 9-10-1 record, third best in the team's 14-year history.

So why are so many people unhappy with the team's performance to date? Because the 5-2 start promised better things and everyone realizes that this team is too good to be drifting around the .500 mark.

The negatives are easy to pinpoint. Foremost, the forwards are not generating enough offense. Defensemen Larry Murphy and Scott Stevens, with 19 points each, are the scoring leaders for a team that ranks third from the bottom with 3.15 goals per game.

The Capitals have played nine games in November, going 3-6 and netting 21 goals. Six of the 13 forwards have not scored a goal, while four others have one apiece. Mike Gartner has six, Mike Ridley three and Kelly Miller two.

In 13 games since Oct. 24, Murphy and Stevens have 21 assists. The 13 forwards have totaled only 18.

A major problem has been in transition. With the notable exception of Bengt Gustafsson, who has turned a number of two-on-ones and three-on-twos into standoffs, players appear slow to react when the puck changes hands.

There was good news on the transition front Saturday in Hartford, when the Capitals defeated the Whalers, 4-3. Greg Smith's superb play on one of Hartford's turnovers sent Gartner in for a breakaway goal. Then Kevin Hatcher controlled a puck as it popped loose and rushed down the ice for the eventual game winner.

There are other bright spots, despite the lethargic start. Asked to name a few positive points, Coach Bryan Murray replied: "The defense, certainly, and our goaltending has been excellent. The power play, although the percentages may not show it, has been effective at times and we're getting quality chances."

If the offense is third from the bottom, the defense is third from the top, trailing only the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils with a yield of three goals per game. Adding overtime minutes and dropping empty-net goals leaves both Pete Peeters (2.85) and Clint Malarchuk (2.96) with goals-against marks below three.

The power play has provided most of the offense in recent weeks, although the overall 21.2 percent success rate is not impressive. Of the Capitals' 24 goals in the last 10 games, 15 have been scored with the extra man, leaving an equal-strength rate of less than one a game.

Individually, few Capitals are playing beyond preseason expectations. Two names that do come to mind are Miller and Hatcher.

Miller, scheduled to form part of the checking line with Peter Sundstrom and Bob Gould, has been promoted to left wing alongside Gustafsson on one of the top two units. Until Saturday, the right wing was Dave Christian, but Gartner was on the right side in Hartford. Miller also has been asked to double up as a penalty killer and power-play figure.

"I don't mind playing with different guys," he said. "The further into the season we go, the better we know the system. You pretty much know what guys are going to do. I'm glad to be getting the ice time. I'll play anywhere."

Hatcher's development was delayed by torn knee cartilage in training camp. He missed the first nine games of the season and was slow to reach the level predicted for him after his fine Canada Cup showing.

He is there now, however, and his goal and assist in Hartford confirmed his new-found confidence. In the last four games, Hatcher has put 21 shots on goal, although maintaining a strong defensive role.

"Kevin anchors well with Rod {Langway}," Murray said. "He's a big guy and he can be a force for us. In the past he's had a little problem picking his spots to pinch in, but last night he was really jumping on the puck."

Gartner apparently has ended his slump, scoring five goals in the last five games after managing only one in 11. He hopes Saturday's success, despite a less-than-scintillating overall performance, will get the Capitals started on a winning streak.