One has to have been a scorer before one can have a scoring slump. So it is some measure of how far John Druce has come in his career that his lack of recent scoring is even an issue.

With the Washington Capitals playing well and in the thick of the Patrick Division race, Druce's one goal in the last nine games does not a crisis make. But it is a downturn.

"I think I've been working hard and trying to do the same things," Druce said yesterday after practice. "As in the first couple games, the bounces haven't gone my way. With a lot of {Patrick} division games, they've seemed to be tighter checking games, where every time you turn around somebody's stick is right on you."

His lone goal in the last nine games was an empty-netter against the Islanders Dec. 1, yet he still has more goals (15) than any other Capital heading into tonight's 7:35 game against Hartford at Capital Centre.

And Druce's 30 points still leave him third on the team behind Kevin Hatcher and Michal Pivonka.

Druce was icing a sore wrist after scoring two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, in Detroit Nov. 19. But he had two more goals two nights later against Toronto and said yesterday he feels fine.

"I feel good," Druce said. "A lot of times coming into a season, when you've been up and down {to the minors, as he was}, there is a lot of stress."

But that mental baggage is not something Druce has to carry now. Besides the points, the Capitals rely on him to help kill penalties.

"I always said I wanted to be a good player at both ends," Druce said. "I'm not panicking."

Neither is Coach Terry Murray.

"I'm not concerned about John not scoring," Murray said. "He's still getting quality chances, and still has the intensity and the work ethic."

Pivonka, Alan May and Dave Tippett are expected to be in uniform after missing some games with injuries.

Pivonka has had a knee problem and May and Tippett both have had shoulder injuries. For Tippett, the game will be the second against his former team.

Mike Liut will be in the same situation if Murray decides to use him in goal. Murray wasn't saying yesterday whether he will use Liut, who was in goal for the Capitals' 4-1 win over Philadelphia, or Don Beaupre, whose 2.08 goals-against average is the best in the NHL.

After the Whalers beat Liut and the Capitals, 4-2, in Hartford Nov. 17, Kevin Dineen said he and other Whalers knew exactly where they wanted to shoot against Liut. Every goalie has a weakness, and they thought they knew Liut's, since he had played all or part of six seasons in Hartford. By the same token, Liut knows many of Hartford's shooters well.

"You want to stop yourself from thinking too much," Liut said. "It's almost better not to know them. You know what they're going to do, but do they know you know what they are going to do?"