Rod Langway is in search of a chiropractor who can relieve his back spasms. Scott Stevens is in St. Louis, having an all-star season and helping the Blues become one of the best teams in the NHL. Neil Sheehy has had a broken ankle, a broken leg and a blown-out back. And Bob Rouse is in Toronto, having been traded recently.

It is no coincidence that the Washington Capitals are four points short of a playoff spot, or that they lost three straight on a western swing that produced an 8-2 loss to Calgary, a blown two-goal lead to lowly Vancouver, and a five-minute Washington power play that saw the Caps give up two goals in a 5-2 loss at Los Angeles.

With Langway, Stevens, Rouse and Sheehy, the Washington Capitals were Wales Conference finalists. Without them, the Capitals are in fifth place in the Patrick Division. This much we know about the Washington Capitals: The team was conceived totally around defense and strong, standup defensemen such as Langway and Stevens. When your leading scorer (Dino Ciccarelli) has 19 goals and your second-leading scorer (John Druce with 18) has three goals since Dec. 1, you're not going to scare anybody with firepower. Hey, these guys miss more shots than the Hoyas!

"We are what we are," General Manager David Poile said yesterday. "What we've got are some talented, very young defensemen other than Rod who have their best hockey ahead of them. It bodes well for the future. But all we really care about right now is right now."

Poile is very careful to point out that the defensemen aren't all to blame for the team's problems of late; that the defensemen aren't all to blame even for the team's defensive problems. True enough, the inept power play allowed the Capitals to fall hopelessly behind in the Forum Monday afternoon.

But the fact is, of the six top Capitals defensemen who finished the season last year, only Kevin Hatcher and Calle Johansson are healthy and available at the moment. Al Iafrate, 24, is a great talent but he's the first to say he's an offensive defenseman. Some would say the Capitals have a whole crew of offensive defensemen, having given up Rouse, who -- with Langway hurt -- was the only stay-at-home defender left.

Hatcher leads the club in points scored and appears to have made the step into the upper echelon of NHL defensemen, but he isn't going to win a Norris Trophy just yet. Johansson rarely killed penalties last season; now he often does. Sometimes he's the first penalty killer. But he isn't going to push people around or win most of the battles in the corners.

As Poile said, the Capitals are what they are, and right now they are a defense-oriented team unable to play the kind of defense that made them successful.

Nevertheless, their 27-31-3 record is nearly identical to last year's 26-30-4 mark going into the final fourth of the season. And the Caps have an upcoming stretch of five consecutive games against Patrick opponents: two against the Rangers, and one each against Pittsburgh, New Jersey and the Islanders.

It is critical for the Capitals to start beating somebody now, "especially Pittsburgh and New Jersey, one of which we're going to have to beat out to make the playoffs," Poile said. "We're looking for what every team in pro sports is looking for: momentum down the stretch."

Unfortunately for the Capitals, both the Rangers and Flyers -- another division foe -- are playing much better than a year ago. And Pittsburgh presumably will have the services of Mario Lemieux this time.

With the aging Langway (he'll soon be 34) and injuries abounding, Poile has made the deals he thought would help the Caps during this transition. Much has been made over the deal to acquire John Kordic, the pugilist who is out now dealing with an alcohol problem and who fought and argued with teammates in Toronto before the Caps took a chance on him.

As far as compensation, the deal wasn't a risk at all. A fifth-round draft pick -- which is all the Capitals dealt for Kordic -- is nothing. The risk is in creating another community relations nightmare for a team still recovering from "The Incident." That's what Poile calls what happened between four Capitals -- Stevens, Sheehy, Ciccarelli and Geoff Courtnall -- and a young woman who accused the players of sexual assault after a Georgetown party last spring. While no charges were brought against the players, negative reaction to the club and players in the community was significant.

Most teams that have as impressive a postseason run as the Capitals had last year carry momentum into the next year. But as Poile said, "We are not anything close to being the same team that finished last season. We never had a chance to celebrate last season's success."

"About 48 hours after the season ended The Incident happened," he said. In the weeks that followed, Stevens signed a free-agent contract that the Caps declined to match. Sheehy broke a leg (and ankle), then blew out his back trying to hustle back into action. Courtnall was traded.

Then Hatcher and goaltender Don Beaupre held out. "We never took advantage of what we accomplished," Poile said.

So, the general manager had to scramble to fill the holes. He couldn't have known Ciccarelli would miss more than 20 games with an injury or that Langway -- a true iron man for a decade -- would miss so many games.

The Capitals will play 12 of their last 19 games at home. There is time, just as there was last year. "We have to see whether some of the young players step forward, whether another John Druce {last season's playoff hero} emerges," Poile said. "There's the opportunity for at least half of our team to do something, to step up."