Craig Laughlin clearly remembers the day of the trade last September and retells the tale with pleasure.

"We had a skate at the Forum that day, and there were supposed to be some fitness tests, too," he said. "As soon as I heard, I forgot all about that, and Roddy (Langway) and I went to lunch and celebrated."

Laughlin, who came to the Capitals in the shuffle that sent Ryan Walter and Rick Green to the Canadiens in exchange for Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and him, had actually hoped to be traded to Washington.

"I knew at the end of last season they'd trade me, and the first thing I thought was, I'd love to go to D.C. or Detroit," he said. "Because they're not so good, they'd maybe give me a chance."

But Washington is no longer in the not-so-good category, with a 14-game unbeaten streak that goes on the line at 7:05 tonight against Philadelphia at Capital Centre. Incredibly, if the Capitals (41 points) win, they can break out of a second-place tie with the Flyers and continue their run at the Patrick Division-leading Islanders (43 points), who visit Hartford tonight.

Some observers feel Laughlin has had a great deal to do with the turnaround. A year ago in Montreal, he filled in for Rejean Houle, scored 12 goals and 11 assists in 36 games with the Canadiens. Even so, he realized he was not part of Montreal's blueprint for the future.

"I think they wanted to move in more French players, high-scoring players," he said. "Coming here, I knew, would be great."

"His effort and approach to the game are so enthusiastic," said Capitals Coach Bryan Murray. "Craig's got a lot of ability, he shoots well, works hard. I don't know how many goals we'll get out of him, but if you're coaching at all, you've got to take advantage of people with enthusiasm. That's Craig."

Laughlin and linemates Bengt Gustafsson and Alan Haworth, Murray points out, have not been "outstanding" as far as productivity, but when Murray plays them against the opposition's 'big lines,' "they simply outwork the other team, which is so very important."

Laughlin--correctly pronounced "Lock-lin", despite what the radio folk claim--is bothered a bit by his current statistics (five goals, including one in Thursday night's 5-1 win over the Islanders, and eight assists).

"I try not to get down on myself about it," he said. "Maybe my New Year's resolution will be to get a lot of pucks in the net. But part of it is, when you're the third or fourth line, you're not playing as much as the Carpenters, Gartners and Maruks.

"If they make a mistake early in the game, it's forgotten because they're out there 30 minutes. But if you make one error, and you don't get back in quickly, you don't have a chance to redeem yourself. When you know you play a lot, you don't get cold."

Laughlin frets that because his line doesn't generate as much offense as others, "it doesn't look like we're helping at all."

General Manager Dave Poile disagrees. "Craig Laughlin plays within the definition of the team concept, which makes his value intangible," he said. "He's not a star, and he's gotta earn everything he'll ever get in the NHL. But Craig gets the job done, and he's a real up guy, good to have around."

Laughlin's concern over his personal performance is overshadowed by the team record. "If the team does well, it'll be beneficial to me, I keep telling myself," he said. "We've just got to be sure we don't get too cocky."

Laughlin, one of the most vocal Capitals, tries to keep spirits high with a line of locker room chatter that spews out nonstop. "I like trying to get guys motivated," he said. "The team is doing well, but I, personally, want to be ready to help the Capitals down the stretch."

He laughs a little. "Who knows? Maybe I'll be the big scorer in the playoffs."