After beating the team with the best record in hockey, the Washington Capitals, a club historically unfamiliar with winning, are growing more accustomed to this pace.

"Our expectations have moved a lot higher because of this," said Coach Bryan Murray after his team, now 10-9-6, defeated the Chicago Black Hawks, 4-2, Saturday night.

"At the end of the first period, I said we'd beat them by three. And maybe there was some doubt in the (dressing) room. But after we got going, we outskated them. They took it to us pretty well in the first period (1-0), but after that we didn't give them anything at all.

"Now we expect not only to beat the teams like Pittsburgh and New Jersey, but also the better teams in the league."

The Capitals, who skated hesitantly through Saturday's first period, came back from intermission with four goals--three in a row, two on power plays.

Murray has been working overtime on the power-play units, looking for consistency.

"The guys are aware of what they want to do," he said. "Against Chicago, we moved the puck extremely well. As I've said, confidence is part of it. Some nights we press so hard, and yet we can't get a shot.

"At training camp, I let them know just how important the power play is and maybe that's added pressure."

Murray also said that Darren Veitch, still out with a broken collarbone suffered against Pittsburgh in October, was important to the Capitals' power play.

"Darren was definitely a factor for us. You've got two guys on the blueline and they move across the box (four opposing players), breaking it down," he said.

"Darren did it well. But some nights, some guys put too much pressure on themselves to do it all, and we just don't finish (plays) well."

Murray, who celebrated his 40th birthday yesterday, said defense and goaltending have been the major factors in the Capitals' strong showings this season.

"No question, our biggest area of improvement has been our defensive game," he said. "Early in the year we played a couple real good games where nothing happened. And, we can't kid anybody, of course our goaltending makes a difference too."

Al Jensen (5-1-2), who arrived from Hershey Nov. 1, has split the goaltending with Pat Riggin (4-4-3), with both playing consistently.

Against Chicago, Murray started Riggin, who had not played since he halted Wayne Gretzky's penalty shot in Edmonton more than a week ago.

"Yet I still felt sharp," Riggin said. "I wasn't hurt, or down about anything (not playing). When you're winning, it's fun, even if you don't play. And if you have good practices, where the guys help keep you sharp, well, he (Al Jensen) plays, I play, it's fine."

Riggin said he "fought the puck" early in the game. "I was leaving sloppy rebounds and was a little edgy," he said. "But when you've got guys like Scotty (Stevens) and Timo (Blomqvist) working for you, it helps. The other two (defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom) it goes without saying. You just know they're there. It really is a lot of fun when you win."

No one would argue that, least of all Murray. "Throughout the whole lineup, things have improved because of winning," he said. "It's easy for the Islanders to win. They're used to winning. They expect to, but it's new for this team. And it's a real boost."

Veitch, whose injury will keep him from playing for an undetermined period, now spends games sitting behind the bench and working with Terry Murray, the assistant coach, stationed in the press box. Murray, wearing a headset for the last few games, spots areas for adjustment and relays suggestions to Veitch. "We (he and Bryan Murray) had always been in touch by phone," Terry Murray said, "but with Darren there, sometimes we can work a little faster, and change something right away that might make a difference."

Oilers 7, Kings 3: Wayne Gretzky smashed yet another NHL record last night in Edmonton, Alberta.

In Edmonton's victory over Los Angeles, Gretzky struck for one goal and four assists to extend his consecutive-game point streak to 29 games.

The record-breaking game, which followed his four-point performance Saturday against Calgary, eclipsed the mark of points in 28 consecutive games set by Guy Lafleur of the Montreal Canadiens in 1976-1977.

The 21-year-old center now holds 22 NHL scoring records.

"I just think 29 games is a lot of games and I need 19 other players helping me all the time," Gretzky said. "I'm happy to get the 29 games. I hope I can keep it going for a few more."

Asked if he thought he could extend the string to an entire season of 80 games, he said: "That's a lot of games. I would need to be mentally, physically at my best, with no nagging injuries. It's tough to go 80 games, but I'll work on Game 30 Tuesday and go from there."