A year ago, the Minnesota North Stars made a spectacular leap forward, from the depths of a nonplayoff 68-point season to 88-point production, sixth place overall and a berth in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Bill Torrey, general manager of the champion New York Islanders, was asked whether any team was capable of such progress this year and without hesitation he said, "Washington could be the surprise team."

"They helped their goaltending and they added experience up front. If things break right for them, they could be very much improved."

Nobody here at the Capitals' training camp is inclined to dispute that assessment. Hopes are high, from General Manager Max McNab down to the rawest rookie. However, since the club set an NHL record a year ago by losing 410 man games to injury, most predictions are qualified by an "if."

"Injury-free, we're going to be very good," said captain Ryan Walter. "We're ready. We're as close now as some teams are by Christmas. We have four good balanced lines -- on every line we've got aggressiveness, goal scorers and the guy to get them the puck. We have a solid defense, solid goaltending and solid coaching.

"You can't foresee things like injuries and other intangibles, but with reasonable luck we'll be in the thick of things. It's a good feeling."

Coach Gary Green cautions folks not to expect too much, while expressing satisfaction with effort and accomplishment thus far.

"I don't know what's possible with this team," Green said. "Anything is possible if you want to work for it. The bottom line is talent, but heart enthusiasm and sheer effort can push it up.

"Obviously, when you're close to the bottom, improvement is inevitable. We will improve. How much is questionable, until we get a feel of what the other teams are like."

The Capitals' regulars have won all four exhibitions, three by one goal in Sweden and then a 9-4 rout of Pittsburgh here. Green tends to discount those results, instead basing his optimism on the conditioning and attitude of the 20 players he has chosen to begin the season.

"Pittsburgh had six regulars not in the lineup and how many did we have out who will begin this season (probably none)," Green said. "We won and we did some things well, but we have to be realistic about it.

"In Europe, Minnesota outplayed us for half the game and we outplayed them the rest. But we tied Minnesota once on their ice last year in a helluva game.

"We were able to skate with the Swedish team and we were in unbelieveable shape. But what it means beating them by one goal is difficult to access.

"A lot of other teams have improved amazingly. Toronto is far better team on attitude alone. Quebec has made a lot of good changes. Pittsburgh has added a couple of good players.

"I want to be enthusiastic and I have a great deal of optimism. Still, I have to be realistic. We didn't make the playoffs last year. The top six or seven teams are a difficult section to move into. From 17 you figure to move up to 15 to 11 with maximum output. The top seven or eight is not impossible.

"Regardless, of course, we'll start out aiming for first. If we didn't, there'd be something wrong with my character."

McNab steers clear of any predictions, but he promised that the club will provide the best hockey entertainment we've ever had. I am confident the entertainment factor and the competition factor at every game will be the highest ever in our history. I think we're a playoff hockey club. I've never had this kind of confidence as far as the playoff picture is concerned.

"We have the most talent ever and Gary and Bill (Mahoney) will certainly keep them hustling. I like the chemistry to give us a steady performance. We have enough balance. But we must recognize that most of the other clubs have improved too."

In the past years, the Capitals have entered the regular season with some positions undecided while facing an unfavorable early schedule burden with road games and travel that hampered proper organization.

After two weeks here at training camp, Green has made only two alterations from his Sept. 15 lineup. Rookie Torrie Robertson has replaced Greg Polis at left wing on the fourth line and Pat Ribble has slipped into Pierre Bouchard's defensive spot alongside Daren Veitch, with Bouchard moving next to Yvon Labre as the third unit.

When the season opens Oct. 10, the Capitals will be blessed with four straight home games, providing further home games, providing further opportunity for ironing out any kinks.

"We're still working hard, because we know there are guys out there trying to take our jobs," Walter said. "But basically we know that this is the team.Everybody is together and not fighting each other. It's not a case, as it was before, of taking 30 guys and finding the best 20 by December."

Dennis Maruk, one of the victims of last season's injury jinx, is among the optimists this time around. He has been a tireless worker in camp and has scored some big goals, the overtime winner against Minnesota and three here Sunday against Pittsburgh. But he would rather talk about the company he keeps.

"We have four lines with really good balance," Maruk said. "Everybody can go out there and do the job. You don't lose anything from one line to the next. The new guys like Prony (Jean Pronovost) and (Bob) Kelly have the experience. We're definitely a playoff contender. We're going to be a good hockey club."

Pronovost not only has scored five goals but also has provided solid checking. On his first shift Sunday, he flattened Pittsburgh's Paul Marshall with an adroit check that set the tempo for his teammates.

Dennis Ververgaert, here on a trial basis after two years as a spot player in Philadelphia, has impressed Green with "the little things he does, the way he controls the puck. His size and strength mean a lot."

The four left wings -- Paul Mulvey, Kelly, Alan Hangsleben and Robertson -- provide needed muscle and few will dispute Green's claim that "we have the most aggressive left side in the league."

Mike Palmateer is No. 1 in the nets, but Wayne Stephenson has been even more impressive, earning best goaltender honors in the Swedish tournament.

Possibly the best measurement of the club's improvement can be deduced from the fact that "The Franchise" of past years, Guy Charron, is skating as well as ever, is in excellent shape and still ranks as only the fourth-line center.

Players like Wes Jarvis, Glen Currie, Leif Svensson, Antero Lehtonen, Mark Lofthouse, Greg Theberge and Rollie Boutin apparently will start the season here, but they will be available as experienced replacements when and if the injury bug hits Washington.

With Green's game plan geared to taking the body whenever possible, it is obvious that injuries cannot be avoided. But it will take an epidemic, particularly striking key defensemen like Rick Green and Paul MacKinnon, to knock the Capitals out of the playoff picture.