Until last season, the Washington Capitals were known for two things: losing in the Patrick Division playoffs and "a shot and a gooooal." Then, both changed: They made the Wales Conference finals and replaced their television voice of six years, Mike Fornes.

The Capitals, Home Team Sports and WDCA-TV-20 showed the door to Fornes and Al Koken, ushering in Jeff Rimer and Craig Laughlin. Fornes generally received high marks, but there were reports he was too critical of the team for HTS's liking. "Absolutely not," said Jody Shapiro, HTS director of programming.

Contacted yesterday, Fornes said he just did what he was brought in to do: "report the games, educate the fans, be entertaining."

The way Shapiro and Lew Strudler, Capitals marketing director, tell it, they wanted someone local, someone to be around the team all the time. Fornes lives in Michigan. Shapiro also was looking to move the telecasts "up a notch" by finding a former player, someone who could offer more insight.

Rimer and Laughlin are familiar with the team. Rimer worked the telecasts as an interviewer, and Laughlin was a player in 1982-88. Rimer has been involved with hockey for years, but never had done play-by-play on the NHL level. This is Laughlin's first broadcasting assignment. Not only are they inexperienced with each other, they are just plain inexperienced.

Perhaps hockey is the hardest sport to call; the puck is so small and moves so fast. From Chicago last week on Channel 20, Rimer often was caught behind the play, either by telling stories -- which is good at times because straight play-by-play is boring -- or by just being slow.

"Wrapped around the boards and into the Washington end by McGill. Comes all the way on the side here for Bergland and it's quickly back into the Chicago end. Boy, it didn't take long to get from end to end -- HERE WE GOOOO . . . off the blocker . . . ah . . . off the foot . . . then off the pad of Belfour and into the crowd."

What happened was that Rob Murray stole the puck in the faceoff circle to the right of Chicago goalie Ed Belfour and shot. Rimer was right to marvel at the puck's speed: It was faster than he was.

His excitement seemed a bit forced, too often on cue when the puck neared the goalmouth. But Rimer seemed genuinely excited when there was a winner in the "Circuit City Power Play Contest," in which a fan picks the player he thinks will score on the power play.

Laughlin was describing a power-play goal when Rimer barged in with "We have a winner in our Circuit City Power Play Contest." Laughlin was forced to say "That's exactly right, Jeff" before continuing with his analysis.

Later, Rimer thought there was another winner. "Oh, I've got to correct that. The Caps scored on the power play but it was Ridley that was selected by our contestant. Sorry, Barbara." That's okay, Jeff.

Laughlin is more than a little raw, but that's to be expected. This is not network TV (it's hockey, how could it be network?), this is a local show. As a former player, he knows things no broadcaster or fan will ever know. Now, he has to work on communicating, and that takes time.

He's had his moments. At Chicago Stadium, the glass around the ice is not as tall as in other rinks. So, when a player shot the puck over the glass, Laughlin said, "You won't get called for delay of game here because you use it as an excuse."

Laughlin also brought us into the locker room in a taped, between-periods segment. He interviewed the equipment managers and trainer, showing many viewers things they never had seen.

For all of Rimer's difficulties with play-by-play, he knows his game and that comes through when he's talking with Laughlin.

Rimer: John Druce "is playing a lot of left wing for Coach Terry Murray right now."

Laughlin: "You really want him on left wing because that way he's a right{-handed} shot, he's got a better angle to come in. He's very good at shooting high and with Belfour down a lot he can come in on his off wing, catch Belfour on the wrong angle and put it upstairs. That's why Terry Murray is using him on left wing."

As for Fornes, he has been watching his replacements in this, "the first winter in 21 years I have not been affiliated with a hockey team. It's been very difficult watching the games" on his satellite dish.

Subdued, but no sour grapes.

Fornes said he "received in the mail about a week ago a Patrick Division playoff banner from David Poile -- a replica of what was hung in Capital Centre. David Poile didn't forget me. It's hanging here. It's pretty neat. It shows his class."