To understand how much Rod Langway (with his Stanley Cup ring, all-star grace and gunslinger cool) means to the New Capitals, we need only recall the dear, dim, departed days of the distant past. Like last April.

Back then, fellows with half their teeth would come to Washington from strange places such as Winnipeg and Long Island. These toothless ruffians would smile a lot, because they loved to play the Washington Capitals, which was the NHL's equivalent of an all-day ticket at Disneyland. Fun and games, eh, guys?

"We'd say, 'The Caps, what were we against them last year? 3-0? And how many goals did I score?" said Craig Laughlin, a Montreal Canadien DAVE KINDRED/ This Morning last season before joining the Capitals in The Trade. "But these Caps now are not the same old Caps. We can bump and grind with any team, or we can skate with any team. Now, guys say, 'Holy Rocket Richard, we're playing the Washington Capitals.' "

Put those last three words in italics, as if Laughlin were speaking of something pretty, like Gretzky on the fly. Suddenly, the Washington Capitals deserve respect. "This team is for real," Laughlin said. Not only did the Capitals build a team-record unbeaten streak, they did it so convincingly that by the 10th game they outclassed a second-place club (the Kings).

Here came a puck near the red line, about to flash behind Rod Langway and onto the stick of a King.

With elegant insouciance, defenseman Langway, not turning to look, dropped his stick behind his back and stopped the puck. La de da, a stroll in the park.

"There's something about New Englanders as hockey players," said David Poile, the Capitals' general manager. "Langway's from Boston, and Bobby Carpenter's from up there. They've got a hockey arrogance. Bobby knows he belongs in the NHL, and Rod knows he's an all-star."

As the Capitals reduced the Kings to commoners, even a guy who thinks icing is what you put on cake (blush) quickly recognized that the Capitals were the better skaters and stick handlers. The puck flat belonged to the Capitals this night. For the last 32 minutes of the first two periods, the Kings managed only five shots.

Here came Langway, skating backward, gliding with a grace you don't expect in a hockey player 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. His stick in his right hand, he poked at the puck carried by a King. He poked again, and the puck skittered to a Capital going the other way.

"When you're that size and play the way Rod Langway does," said Laughlin, "it makes a big impact on your team. And he has the respect of everybody. He's got that Stanley Cup ring. If the team isn't playing well, he'll talk to guys about it. Because he's Rod Langway, everybody listens."

The Capitals' management named Langway, 25, team captain.

"This might not sound right," Poile said, "but I think if there ever was any trouble in the locker room, Rod would throttle the guy causing it."

Bryan Murray, the coach: "Last year it seemed everybody waited for me to do the yelling and screaming in the room. Rod's taken charge in there. And it's gotten contagious. He even has Mike Gartner and Dennis Maruk going, and they always just sat there quiet."

Langway is lean, hollow-cheeked and long-waisted, the kind of specimen Michelangelo had in mind with his David. Most NHL players wear helmets; Rod Langway's brown curls flutter in the breeze, letting everyone know he's the one flying down-ice so smoothly, so rhythmically, he seems a show dancer more than a gunslinger with battle scars all over his body.

The red line through his left eyebrow is the newest addition to a collection dating to his quarterbacking days.

He needed surgery after a shoulder separation his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire. This is the kind of athlete Rod Langway is: when he couldn't play quarterback, he went to outside linebacker.

When Langway gained national recognition in hockey his sophomore season, he signed with Birmingham in the World Hockey Association. After one season, he joined the Canadiens. He earned his Stanley Cup ring as a rookie in '78-79, playing full-time only in the championship series.

"I did a helluva job," said Langway, who counts honesty more virtuous than undeserved modesty. The last three seasons, the league has recognized Langway as all-star material, which "is a great compliment to my defensive style of play at a time when offensive-minded defensemen were getting all the attention."

Langway wanted out of Montreal. "I wouldn't trade the Stanley Cup ring for any amount of money. But I had to look out for my family. That CH on your sweater doesn't buy food at the grocery store." As a U.S. citizen, Langway had to pay taxes both in the U.S. and Canada. "Players in the U.S. making half my money were making more than me after taxes."

He loved The Trade, even to ridiculing the Canadiens by calling it "the worst trade in the history of hockey."

"We're doing well," Langway said, "but we won't know for sure until after Christmas. That's when we get to the nitty-gritty. We haven't seen pressure yet like the pressure we will see. It's not even unforeseen anymore to say 'when we get to the pressure where we play for first place in the division.'

"Then we'll play the Philadelphias, the Rangers, the Islanders for the big spots, 1-2-3. That's pressure, and a lot of people will take the pipe. But you'll learn. Mid-January, all of February, that's the time. We can leave Pittsburgh in the dust. I know we can be 1-2-3. These are not the Washington Capitals of old."