Maybe the Capitals defeated the Penguins, 5-4, Thursday night, but yesterday they spent less time reflecting on the victory that put them four points ahead of Pittsburgh and more on preparing for tonight's game against the Chicago Black Hawks.

The National Hockey League's hottest act plays Capital Centre at 8:05 this evening, a visit the Capitals cannot take lightly. Chicago is off to its best start since the 1971-72 season. After an early 10-game unbeaten streak, Chicago lost, 5-4, to the Islanders on Nov. 20, but since have won six in a row.

The Black Hawks lead the league with the most victories and fewest losses for a 17-3-5 record that is better than that of the Islanders, Montreal or Philadelphia. Not bad for a team that finished 15th in the NHL last year.

"They really are playing awfully well," Coach Bryan Murray said yesterday before viewing a videotape of Chicago's 3-1 win over New Jersey. "(Center) Denis Savard does so many things well for them, creates chances and just does everything."

Savard, a 21-year-old playing his third season, has 29 assists this season, second only to Wayne Gretzky of Edmonton. His linemates are holding their own, too: Al Secord shares the league lead in goals scored (21) with the Islanders' Mike Bossy, and Steve Larmer leads all rookies with 11 goals and 14 assists.

"They're playing a very disciplined kind of hockey, very conscious of their wingers coming back to help the defensemen," Murray said. "They don't seem to be gambling as much and have cut down their goals against."

Murray scouted Chicago's win over Pittsburgh Wednesday night, and said, "If they get you by two goals, that's it, they'll wrap the game up."

Chicago, in the middle of a 13-day, seven-game road swing, has almost entirely new personnel since a year ago, including the coach, Orval Tessier, who took over at the start of this season. "He's really getting a lot out of them," Murray said.

Murray wants to get more out of his own players, although he said, "I think we're showing improvement every game.

"(Assistant Coach) Terry (Murray) and I were talking this morning, and if we'd played Pittsburgh this morning, we'd have taken them easily, the guys were so loose and moving so well in practice." he said yesterday afternoon. The previous night, with a 5-2 third-period lead, the Capitals "went into a shell" and watched the lead evaporate to 5-4.

"Rather than being confident and relaxing too much when we do have a lead, instead we are so concerned about doing the right thing, we don't do anything," Murray said. "We get caught standing around sometimes."