When goaltender Gary Inness signed a contract with the Washington Capitals in December, it was an iffy kind of thing.

He was unemployed, his Indianapolis team having folded, and the Capitals were prepared to embark on a goalie-a-game talent hunt, if necessary, in a desperate search for stability in the nets. So a rest-of-season financial agreement seemed a reasonable idea for both player and team.

The way Inness has been playing, the renegotiations should be interesting -- and lucrative for Inness. While he has not turned the franchise around singlehanded, without him there would have been no turnabout.

Inness has played in 19 of 20 games since his arrival, the last 16 in a row. He has a 9-5-4 record and a 3.16 goalsagainst average. His superb performance has given his teammates the confidence to play offensive hockey without having skate blades turned in anticipation of a sudden desperate dash backward. In their last 10 games, of which they have won seven, with another tied, the Capitals have averaged 4.5 goals.

"Inness has been a big factor," said Coach Danny Belisle in a discussion of the team's sudden success. "Before he came, we had started playing some pretty good hockey and with had goaltending we'd have won some, but with good goaltending everything has snowballed."

Inness' iron-man streak will reach 17 games tonight when the Vancouver Canucks visit Capital Centre at 7:30. It marks the beginning of the club's third back-to-back grind in eight days, since Montreal comes into the Centre Sunday night. Then the Capitals will have a 10-day break, with practice barred for the first four.

Inness, like many of his bruised teammates, availed himself of trainer Gump Embro's magic hands during the two-day interlude since Wednesday's victory over Los Angeles. He did not appear for Thursday's practice, Belisle having ordered him to stay away or be fined.

"Back-to-back games aren't that bad when they're both at home," Inness said. "You just have to put fatigue in the back of your mind. But I'm looking forward to the break. It's been a long haul. Winning makes it a lot easier. I want to get a bit of rest, see my family (left behind in Indiana-polis) and have a bit of fun."

No matter how tired he may be, Inness will receive no sympathy from the Canucks, alternately known as the eyesores or the vagabonds of the NHL.

Vancouver's black road uniforms, featuring red and yellow trim around the plunging V neckline, seem more suited to a water bed than an ice rink.