ennis Maruk, who once heard criticism that he played only for himself, has become the ultimate team player for the Washington Capitals. Not only is Maruk, at 26, one of the elder statesmen of the NHL's youngest team, but he is the driving force in an effort to bring his young teammates together for a run at a playoff spot.

"We can be a winning hockey team," Maruk said today. "We've proven it against some pretty good clubs. But consistency is the name of the game. The guys just have to realize we're a good hockey team, and do it every night.

"It's almost been like starting over this year, with so many young guys. They came up when Bryan (Murray) took over and they showed all that youthful desire and we made a move, but then they leveled off and sort of got settled in. Now they're starting to come alive again and we're playing pretty well."

Maruk is playing better than pretty well. Although he is Washington's chief scoring threat and the opposition pays him close attention, he has scored 10 goals in the last five games, four of them away from home. Having tied the club record of 97 points with his two goals in Denver Sunday, he is hoping to hit 100 at the Forum Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings (WTOP-1500 at 10:30).

Maruk ranks fourth in the NHL in scoring, behind Wayne Gretzky (156), Mike Bossy (102) and Peter Stastny (99). His 46 goals place him second only to Gretzky's 70. After becoming a member of the NHL's exclusive 50-goal club a year ago, Maruk can see 60 in his immediate future, but it is not something that dominates his thinking.

"One hundred points will be nice, because you always like to do better," Maruk said. "I don't know about 60, though. The games are tough now, everybody is fighting for the two points, and at times I could possibly have a checker on me.

"The playoffs are the only thing I'm really looking for. If I get 60 or 70 goals, or whatever I have to do, and we make it, that's great. But if the season's over and we're not in the playoffs, then I'll be thinking back to what did I do wrong, what should I have done differently.

"We came so close the last two years, we wanted to get off fast and make sure of it this year. And then to go 1-13. If we'd won maybe four of those, we'd be fighting it out with Pittsburgh. We wouldn't be 11 points behind, in a situation where every game lost means two points we can't get."

Maruk played perhaps his finest game Sunday, in that 5-3 loss at Denver. He scored two goals while firing a season-high eight shots at goalie Chico Resch, hit two posts and was still flying at the finish, despite double shifting on two lines, as teammates wilted from the heat and altitude. Still, after being saluted as the No. 2 star, he threw his stick in disgust before entering the dressing room.

"I felt tired, but it didn't really affect me until after," Maruk said. "I've always been a quick-start skater and that helps, but this was my first time on two lines and it had some effect. It was so frustrating, though, for the team to play so well and still lose."

While Maruk has scored those 10 goals, the rest of the team has totaled 12. The reason was readily apparent in Denver, as Maruk took a rebound, skated away from a pileup in front, then sent the puck into an empty corner of the net. Meanwhile, teammates were unloading immediately, into the goalie, into defensemen, wide of the net.

"It comes with experience, knowing what to do around the net," Maruk said. "I know when to lift my head up and look instead of just shooting. The game's so quick, you have to be quick and react quickly to everything. I just try to concentrate on my scoring chances. Some games you get one, some games you get 10.

"If I'm on a two-on-one, I try to make sure of the good pass, or if I shoot, I want to at least force the goalie to make a good save. I concentrate a little more around the net and it's been paying off."

A night on the town in Los Angeles this week was just one more item in Maruk's campaign for team togetherness. He also was host at a New Year's Eve party for his teammates and he is planning another party when the club returns home.

"This is a good time for the team to get together and get to know each other," Maruk said. "When we're home, we go home to our families, and most of our road trips are just for one game, so we know each other only in the dressing room. Now there's a chance to get to know what the other guys think, what they like to do.

"There are so many new guys, we haven't had that chance before. I think parties are good, because they give a chance to see each other off the ice and get to know each other. The more you know about a guy, the more you understand him, the less likely you are to get upset by the little things that can disrupt a team."