National Hockey League coaches and general managers, accustomed to feasting on the Washington Capitals in past years, have read the message provided by that 13-game unbeaten streak and reluctantly conceded that dinner is over.

Many hockey people question why the Capitals, with a nucleus of good players, took so long to turn the corner. All give General Manager David Poile and Coach Bryan Murray high marks for finally producing a winner here.

"They've had talented players in the past and I've wondered why they didn't do better," said Glen Sonmor, coach of the Minnesota team that is undefeated in its last 10 games. "They've made some excellent additions, obviously (Rod) Langway and (Brian) Engblom, and (Doug) Jarvis, guys who know how to win. I'm impressed with (Milan) Novy, too, he's just a fine player.

"(Al) Jensen is maybe the last piece in the puzzle. You don't go far in this league without solid goaltending. But to have outstanding centers like (Dennis) Maruk and (Bobby) Carpenter both playing left wing and doing a good job, that tells you how much talent there is on that team.

"They're a very impressive team right now and they're working very hard. They've worked hard against us in the past, but it's easier to keep that all-out effort if you win. Without that reward, you get frustrated and after a while the resolve and determination begin to wear down."

"I never thought they were that bad," said Coach Herb Brooks of the New York Rangers. "I've always had respect for Washington, not just during my 1 1/2 years in the league, but as a fan before. They had some good personnel, but a bounce here or there, or a player here or there can make quite a difference.

"Compliments have to go to David Poile, for making that key deal that acquired the extra players that filled in. The Langways, the Engbloms, the Novys, they've made that little bit of difference that determines whether you have a playoff team or not.

"The Capitals have a good blend now and Bryan is doing a fine job as a coach. What they're doing doesn't really surprise me."

"Washington was one team I never thought of as being bad," said Boston General Manager Harry Sinden. "They put up a pretty good effort in most games, but for one reason or another they usually found a way to lose.

"Winning begets winning and it works the opposite way, too. When a team gets on a roll, it can extend itself beyond its limitations and that's probably what they're doing now. They have the feeling that they're going out to win, not to try to keep from losing.

"They have speed and youth, the best defense since they've been in the league and their goaltending is obviously holding up. They'll be tough for anybody."

"When things are going bad, everybody blames the coach; now you have to give him credit," said Pittsburgh Coach Eddie Johnston. "The Capitals are playing very disciplined, they're not giving up many goals and they're playing with a lot of confidence. All of that is a reflection on the coach.

"You can wonder if they're for real when it's six or seven games, but when they go into our building and win a big game, then take a tough game in Philly and run it up to 13, you know it's no accident.

"You have to hand it to Poile for the trade he made, too. Langway and Engblom are providing great leadership. A lot of people kicked the Capitals when they were down, but now they'd better start giving them credit."

"They've got confidence now and they're winning the close games," said Buffalo General Manager-Coach Scotty Bowman. "They're a lot tighter defensively and that's a big plus. I've been trying to tell our team that there are only a half-dozen clubs that really check. The other 15 play wide open, which is the trend now, and when they come up against the close-checking style, it can stifle them.

"This guy (Murray) has done a good job. They were too far behind last year, but they played well after he got there. Now they've got some guys like Doug Jarvis -- you can win with guys like that. Check Montreal's penalty killing with him last year (fifth in the NHL) and now (14th).

"Their younger players are getting better, like (Mike) Gartner and Carpenter, and they've got enough new personnel. You've got to get new personnel when you're not winning. It's brought a new spirit to the team. And I've always felt goaltending was a sore spot, but obviously they've solved that."

Bowman pointed to the road records as a good indication of a team's ability. Washington (6-5-5) is one of five teams in the league over .500 away from home, and the only one in the Patrick Division. Also, on a points-per-game basis, the Capitals are the best of the Patrick teams, with four games in hand to offset the Islanders' three-point advantage.

"They'll certainly be in the playoffs this time and they could win the division," Sonmor said, "although I fully expect the Islanders to get righted before long."

"They have the capabilities of winning the division, just like the other teams that are up there," Sinden said. "But I don't think they are up to the level of the Islanders right now.

"The true test will be in the upcoming weeks. This is the first time since they've been in the league that people are aware of them, and there is a difference when the other teams are prepared for you. The teams on top don't spend a lot of time preparing for teams that have won one of 20. It's impossible for them to sneak up on anybody now. I know we're going to be ready for them."

"We've got an uphill battle, but there's a long way to go," Johnston warned.