When Washington Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar scored a stunning 21 goals in his final 40 games last season, he elevated his status in the NHL and altered the expectations of himself and others. Living up to those standards is nearly impossible--few forwards and even fewer defensemen score at that pace--as Gonchar is finding out this season.

It has been difficult for him not to dwell on his offensive falloff: The notoriously slow starter has just three goals and 11 points in 29 games. Gonchar led the Capitals with 13 power-play goals last season, but has just one this season. As he has pushed himself to do more in the offensive zone, his defensive play has suffered, and he remains susceptible to costly breakdowns. Monday night, for instance, Gonchar was caught in the rush up ice and was drastically behind the play as Chicago finished off a two-on-one matchup to take a 2-1 lead in the second period.

Gonchar has fared better the last few weeks with steady partner Joe Reekie back from a lingering foot injury. Coaches and teammates have assured Gonchar that he doesn't have to score to contribute. But those 21 goals still haunt him.

"Yep, yep, it's bothering me," Gonchar said. "The coaches have been great to me. They've been positive and my teammates support me all along. It's the pressure you put on yourself. It's not a pressure from the coaches or teammates."

Gonchar showed great gifts as a rookie, netting 13 goals and 42 points in 1995-96. He followed that with a 13-goal campaign, then dipped to just five goals and 21 points in 1997-98, before last season's explosion.

That scoring spurt might have been an aberration. The priority is consistent defensive play and an elimination of mental mistakes. Coach Ron Wilson refused to single out Gonchar for any ribbing, though he does have the worst plus-minus rating among the team's defensemen (minus-5). He is quick to point out Gonchar's propensity for finishing strong. He is adamant that his play has improved this month. He says he has nothing but confidence in the player many in the organization hoped would solidify himself as a legitimate number one defenseman this season.

"Last year he had a lot of goals and I think that's affected his play," Wilson said. "He thinks he's got to score, and as a defenseman, you don't step on the ice thinking you have to score--there's no defenseman in the league that can play that way. Your first and primary responsibility is to play sound in your own end and the goals will come.

"The chances are there for guys who have a great shot and guys who see the holes and jump into them. He has jumped into the holes, but the lack of scoring has affected his defensive play at times--he's so worried about scoring. I'm not saying he has to score to be successful. He's got to advance the puck and contribute in other ways offensively."

Gonchar is ahead of last season's pace, sort of. He had just three goals and four points at this time last season, but had played just 19 games to that point. After 29 games last season he had eight goals and 10 points. He finished the season on a tremendous tear--a blessing then, perhaps a curse now.

"I was hoping I was going to score some goals this year, but sometimes it's not working out the way you want it to," Gonchar said. "Obviously, every streak has an end, and hopefully one day I'm going to go out there and do it.

"I just try to go out there and play the way I used to play and things are going to turn around and I'm going to score some goals. I try to stay positive and not worry about it and play hockey the way I used to play."

Capitals Notes: When the Capitals visited Pittsburgh three weeks ago, they held a three-point lead in the standings. Since then, the Penguins are 7-2 under new coach Herb Brooks; Washington is 2-5-1. Pittsburgh holds a six-point lead in the standings. . . . Left wing Ulf Dahlen did not practice yesterday because of a bruised foot, but Wilson said he expects him to play tonight. . . . Center Andrei Nikolishin helped a Russian youth team come to Maryland for a series of games against local teams. . . . The Capitals have earned points in 11 of their last 12 home games. . . . Washington captain Adam Oates has cracked the NHL's top 15 in assists (22).