These Washington Capitals keep insisting they are not the same familiar team that has always struggled to be merely mediocre, and no one insists more than Mike Gartner.

"I honestly have to say it's completely different this year," he said. "The attitude in camp the past few years was a little negative, no matter how much people tried to disguise it."

Gartner has been with the Capitals only three full seasons, but is well-versed in Washington's history. "Eight rough years, five of them real tough," is how he describes the club's existence.

Early on, said Gartner, "there were probably guys playing for the Capitals who shouldn't have even been in the NHL. But now, we have a whole new outlook. You can sense it. And it'll be different."

Gartner hopes his own season starts differently from last year. "I had a tough start," he said. "Halfway through the year, I had only 10 goals. A few things were hurting, and kept bothering me. There were stretched tendons in my wrist and I played with a cast on it for a while."

Although he finished the season with 35 goals, Gartner says he knows he can play better hockey, and Coach Bryan Murray agrees.

"I know Mike had some trouble shooting during the early part of last year," Murray said. "I didn't really know what to expect of him. He wasn't that consistent at the start."

In 1980-81, Gartner had 48 goals, 46 assists and played at a level more to his own liking.

"But even for last season, Mike was an ex-tremely good skater; a great skater, even," Murray said. "And his willingness to get into the corners and to forecheck, those are the things that will make him an outstanding hockey player."

Murray thinks this year's training camp has brought out the best in Gartner, who has most often teamed with Bobby Carpenter and Bengt Gustafsson. "Mike is shooting better and goes to the net more," Murray said. "He'll very definitely be used on the power play because I'm counting on him to have a real effect."

What Gartner wants most for himself is to be able to give his best in every game. "Sometimes you're just not up for it, or you're playing hurt," he said. "It's hard, but you've got to do it."

Gartner views the preseason dispassionately.

"The exhibitions are a showcase for management to pick the team. Remember, we've run 60 guys through the lineup," he said. "Everybody got a shot at it. Winning is important, yes, but more important during maybe the last two exhibitions. Then they'll be putting us together as a team."

Gartner is anxious to see the new Capitals working as a bona fide squad. "You know, we've got about 10 or 11 new faces on the team, and that makes a difference, too. And we've even got guys who own a couple of Stanley Cup rings," he said, referring to ex-Canadiens Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis and Brian Engblom.

Gartner was a close friend of Ryan Walter, who went to Montreal in the trade that brought those Stanley Cup rings into everyday view. "Yeah, we were, and still are, friends, and while I don't think the Capitals can ever replace Walter (as a leader), we've filled some gaps with that move," Gartner said.

And it's all so different this time around, said Gartner, that "I had to grab a program going into practice to see who's who."

The Capitals will return to Hershey to play Detroit tonight at 7:30 and finish the exhibition season against the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday (7:30) in Hershey.