For the third time in four nights, the Washington Capitals will be playing a first-place team tonight. For rookie defenseman Scott Stevens, after two games going against legends, this will be an opportunity to check a familiar face.

The Minnesota North Stars are the 8 o'clock guests at Capital Centre and among the green-clad visitors will be heralded rookie Brian Bellows, the winger whose publicity splash last year would have made a Hollywood starlet green with envy.

Bellows, the phenom, and Stevens, the late bloomer, were teammates as the Kitchener Rangers captured the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior hockey championship.

At draft time, Bellows was expected to be picked first, but wound up No. 2 when Minnesota dealt two players to Boston for the right to pick him. Stevens, despite a fine season in his only year of junior hockey, was considered an unknown quantity and eyebrows were raised when Washington selected him fifth.

Remarkably, as their paths cross tonight after seven games for each team, Bellows and Stevens have recorded two goals apiece in the NHL. Bellows has made a solid but modest start. Stevens, programmed at draft time as a sixth defenseman seeing occasional duty, instead is one of Coach Bryan Murray's dependable big four on the backline, teamed with Brian Engblom.

"When a coach gives you a lot of responsibility and ice time, it makes you want to improve," said Stevens, who stayed on the ice an extra half-hour after the conclusion of yesterday's practice at Fort Dupont. "But I know I have to work hard just to stay here, too.

"This is totally different from junior. Here you do your own job, take care of your area and let the other guys take care of theirs. In junior, you try to do a lot more, helping out other guys and covering more ice."

Engblom has been a major influence in Stevens' progress and he gives his partner full credit.

"Brian Engblom is a smart hockey player," Stevens said. "He helps me out all the time, giving me advice about other players and telling me who to watch."

Stevens needed no pointers about players to watch Wednesday, when Montreal came in with Guy Lafleur, or Thursday, when Bryan Trottier's hat trick helped the Stanley Cup-champion New York Islanders beat the Capitals, 6-3. He won't require an introduction to Bellows, either.

"It's an experience to play a big team like the Islanders and see the faces you've seen on TV," Stevens said. "The whole team knows exactly where they'll be, they've been together so long. The way they skate into the open, you have to hang back a bit.

"Lafleur was good with the puck and hard to hit. You have to back up on him, too. But our whole team played well that night and it made it easier. I feel pretty good now. The first few games I was really nervous, but I guess you have to expect that.

"It's going to be nice to play against Brian and try to stop him. I'm so used to playing with him. He helped me a lot in junior, even though he was a forward, talking to me and giving me confidence.

"We kidded him all the time, because of all the publicity he got and the way everybody talked about him. But we knew he'd get all the coverage and nobody resented it. We were all one team, and he was a heck of a hockey player. Besides, I'd rather let him do the talking; I'm not too good at it."

With words, as well as skates, Stevens is showing rapid progress.