The way Rod Langway saw it, there were two Pittsburgh bad guys looking to lure him into a fight so he'd draw a penalty and sit out the last minute the other night. The Capitals led only 5-4 when Langway heard a whistle stop play. And then he felt the two bad guys breathing on his neck hairs. Well, what's a good guy to do?

Langway shoved one out of the way and latched his hands around the other miscreant's sweater, the better to bring him close for a few words of sweet reason. After which, Langway said with a little smile, "I threw him on the ice."

For a long time, NHL wingers included in their bedtime prayers a word of thanks for the opportunity to play the Washington Capitals. Rather than provoke a fight to get a Capital defender off the ice, centers sent them flowers as tokens of their affection.

The idea that Pittsburgh would want to match penalties with any Capital in a game's last minute is evidence of changes the Capitals have made this season. With Langway and Brian Engblom, all-stars acquired from Montreal, the Capitals have defenders who can defend. Langway: "I wasn't worried about what happened with those two guys. I can take care of myself out there. I have enough scars. I know."

This season is pivotal for a Washington franchise with its own scars. The Capitals play under pressure from owner Abe Pollin, who told the new general manager, David Poile, that his job depended on getting into the playoffs. There is a sense, too, that if the Capitals fail to reach the playoffs, Pollin will sell the team or fold it. For now, Pollin is content because the Capitals seem in better shape, in every way, than ever before.

The team is playing break-even hockey, good enough to get three points against the Islanders in two home games. Langway: "We're improved over the start of the season. Against Pittsburgh, two of the four goals were cheap. And if we only give up two goals a night, we'll be okay." Poile: "This is the best defense the Caps have ever had."

The Capitals' travails on the ice inevitably produced off-ice problems at the box office. Even that has changed. The city responded positively to the "Save the Caps" campaign that Pollin joined in response to appeals from fans. Without those appeals and without community interest as indicated by businesses guaranteeing "sellouts" of 12 games, Pollin said he might have folded the franchise or sold it out of town.

Some people doubted Pollin would do any such thing. Those people believe Pollin intended to stay in hockey because the financing of his Capital Centre calls for an NHL tenant. Yet even those who thought the "Save the Caps" campaign was a deception must be impressed by the business-community response, which, if no more than mutual back-scratching in some cases, still is a sign that somebody cares about hockey.

Peoples Drug paid $20,000 for 1,600 tickets for employes as sponsor of a game, according to Joe Pollard, vice president for advertising. WTOP Radio's Michael Douglas, vice president and general manager, said "it would be fair" to say the station paid about $35,000 for tickets it gave to youth groups.

Other sponsors wouldn't say how much they spent and most wouldn't say how many tickets they bought. The Washington Post said it bought 5,500 tickets for newsboys and youth groups. "I don't think we ought to get into the total cost," said Vincent Reed, vice president for communications.

At $10 a ticket, which Capitals marketing director Lou Strudler said is a fair price to apply to sponsors' tickets, The Post paid $55,500 in what Pollin characterized as a drive for "guaranteed sellouts." Fact is, businesses were asked only to buy the leftovers from 8,500 individual tickets for each game (a figure based on an announced goal of 7,500 season tickets).

The "sellouts" were actually guaranteed crowds of about 16,000. The season-ticket sale stopped at "5,300-5,400" (Strudler's figures). There are 2,130 luxury box seats sold. So 8,500 more tickets leaves more than 2,000 empty seats in the 18,130-seat building.

In any case, attendance is up 22 percent over last season. After 12 games, the average crowd is 13,035, compared with 10,718 at this time last season. What's better, Strudler said, "is that there are no discounted tickets. So not only are crowds up, the gross revenue is up substantially."

The Pittsburgh game Thursday was the first without a guarantee. Attendance was 8,827, almost 2,000 under the previous low and almost 4,000 under the second-lowest. A weeknight game with a next-to-last-place team is the truest measure of a team's basic drawing power -- and nearly 9,000 customers are a solid base.

Give those 9,000 customers winning hockey and they will become 15,000, because the game is singular in its appeal to seemingly disparate audiences. It provides the guile, grace and speed of basketball with the power and violence of football, all done at top speed on ice.

As wonderful as Joe Washington is with a football under his arm, the Capitals' Mike Gartner is no less a thrill with the puck on his stick. As intimidating as Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland are in basketball skivvies, Brian Engblom and Rod Langway have given the Capitals' defense some ornery respectability.

One thing more. Langway isn't happy with the way he's playing. Murray has gently criticized him for "trying to do too much." Maybe at Montreal, Langway said, he played the same way without getting burned. He isn't worried, though.

"I'm playing sloppy," Langway said, a smile wrinkling the scars on his nose and alongside his eyes, "and we're still winning." Not many Capitals defenders ever said such a thing.