One of the many banners that adorn the upper reaches of Capital Centre pays tribute to Capital defenseman Paul MacKinnon: "#19 -- Big Mac Attack."

What a misnomer! As an attack force, MacKinnon is about as successful as the Swiss navy. In six games, he has no points and a mere three shots on goal. A year ago, he scored once in 63 games. The year before, playing in the World Hockey Association, where goals often came cheaply, he collected two.

As mentioned, however, MacKinnon is a defenseman . And if the National Hockey League ever gets around to instituting an award for the best defensive defenseman, as it does for defensive forward, the Capitals will have their first genuine candidate to win a trophy.

The plus-minus statistics illustrate MacKinnon's value. His usual partner is the more-heralded Rick Green, generally considered one of the NHL's better defenders. Yet Green is minus-three, to MacKinnon's plus-two, indicating that without MacKinnon's rock-steady influence, Green sometimes finds himself in trouble.

MacKinnon led Washington defensemen over the full season a year ago with a minus-one rating, compared with Green's minus-11 and Robert Picard's minus-18. He did it although forced to play for several weeks with a full face mask guarding a cheekbone and jaw that were shattered by a puck in Minnesota Nov. 3.

That unfortunate incident can replace fancy adjectives in revealing MacKinnon's courage. After the puck ravaged his face, he rose and continued to skate until the whistle blew, then left the ice to seek treatment.

Yesterday, goalie Wayne Stephenson was still accepting congratulations for the Capitals' first shutout in 209 games, Tuesday's 2-0 blanking of Chicago. tStephenson deserved congratulations, too, for two brilliant saves in the closing seconds while Washington was protecting a one-goal lead. But Stephenson himself put the finger on the key to the big zero.

"Our defense knocked down a lot of shots. They knocked one away that I never did see," Stephenson said.

In five of the Capitals' six games, they have played that kind of defense, permitting no more than 27 shots and insuring that most of those shots have not created big problems for Stephenson and Mike Palmateer. MacKinnon has not been alone in solid defensive play; it has been a team effort, as it must be for success.

"When five guys work together in our end, we can cut down on the shots, particularly on the dangerous shots," MacKinnon said. "There are shots and there are dangerous shots. I think Wayne was able to see most of the shots last night. The forwards came back well and they covered the slot well for us. You need that kind of effort. If the other team gets three-on-twos all night, you have to look bad."

After entertaining St. Louis here Friday night, the 3-2-1 Capitals take a five-game road trip that should give good insight into their future prospects. MacKinnon does not expect any repeats of Sunday's 8-4 loss in Chicago.

"We were blown out so bad Sunday, it was just awful," MacKinnon said. "Maybe it was that old syndrome, home and away. They buzzed all out and skated all game. We were taken off guard. We're going to have to get things together on this trip, but I'm sure we can do it.

"We've had a home stand, but we've layed tough teams, all but one .500 or better last year. We're 3-2-1 now and, with a good performance Friday, that's nine points before we go on the road. It's good to get off well after last year (on Dec. 15, the Capitals were 5-20-5)."

Although the 6-foot, 195-pound MacKinnon blocks shots and bounces bodies with apparent abandon, he has not been able to forget that face shattering drive in Minnesota.

"Once in a while, when I'm in a bad position on the ice, like having my back turned to the point, I'll think about it," MacKinnon said. "I'll try to turn around, because you want to face the shot at all times. But sometimes it happens if you're trying to clear a guy out of the slot.You don't want your back to the puck, because then you don't know where it's going."

Right now, however, all is sweetness and light for the 21-year-old bachelor He signed a new contract during the summer and also bought a house. He likes the area and he likes teaming with the rugged Green.

"I enjoy playing with Greenie; he's a real capable guy," MacKinnon said. "We combine pretty well, playing the body in our end. They shouldn't get any cheap goals while we're out there. We get the puck moving between each other pretty well, get it out of our end."

As a Big Mac Attack, he's a flop, but it seems somebody once said something about the best offense being a good defense.