That ever-popular question, "What's wrong with the Capitals?" needs a slight revision, as in, "What's right . . ."

Until this season, during every year of its unfortunate history, Washington's favorite hockey team had slogged its way through at least one nonwinning string of 10 games or more.

Such hopeless statistics booted the Capitals into the record books but barred them from any shot at the playoffs.

Don't look for a repeat this year.

Breaking tradition, the new, improved Capitals put together the team's first positive streak by going unbeaten in 14 games, from Nov. 24 through Dec. 26. And Coach Bryan Murray, who detests losing even one game, doesn't foresee any long stretches in the loss column.

"If anything, I'd expect to top our 14-game unbeaten streak before we'd have any long losing streak," he said. "With the type of character and depth we have, unless something drastic should happen, like losing two or three top defensemen, a streak like that won't happen again."

That unbeaten streak may have spoiled fans into expecting a similar performance right away. During January, which the Capitals began with a loss to the Rangers, those too familiar with the Capitals were ready to panic, assuming a typical midwinter tailspin was in the making.

A loss to Toronto, another horrendous 9-7 decision to the Kings, and two consecutive losses to Buffalo would have sent the Capitals of old folding fast and sinking to the bottom of the Patrick Division. Here come the headlines, "What's wrong with the Capitals?"

Instead, the new-look Capitals came back to beat the NHL's hottest team, Philadelphia, and a night later in Chicago proved it wasn't just luck when they defeated the Black Hawks, 6-4. A loss to Quebec was followed in quick order by a victory over New Jersey, two over Pittsburgh, a tie in Montreal, defeats of the Red Wings and North Stars.

"There's a new attitude here," said Dennis Maruk, one of the few Capitals remaining from the bad old days. "Winning has a lot to do with attitude and confidence. The guys from winning hockey teams have brought it in and helped the other guys.

"Even if you lose one or two games, that attitude has carried over and the losing hasn't affected us like it did before. Before, if we started losing, we'd get down on ourselves and couldn't get out of it."

Indeed, if the Capitals of the past got down on themselves, unable to break a losing habit, the current club carries no such emotional baggage. And most players believe an intangible is as much responsible as an infusion of fresh talent.

"Even last year, the guys were willing to work," said Bob Gould, who arrived in Washington just after Gary Green was fired as coach in November 1981. "That is the difference between our club and a lot of other clubs.

"But our attitude on the ice and in the dressing room is so positive. Maybe last year there wasn't as much talent. And maybe some games now we don't play that well. But with our attitude, we know it's not gonna last."

Montreal imports Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, Gould said, "are always talking it up in the dressing room, getting guys going. And if there's some night where they're not talking a lot, you almost wonder what's wrong."

"We are so confident, playing on the road, playing good, disciplined hockey, that even the long road swing coming up (late this month) is not something that should really affect us," said Murray.

"This is all something you build on. We've struggled on a couple of occasions, but we also scored goals late in the period, or won some games in the last few minutes. The experience of playing 50-odd games is paying dividends.

"And the way the kids are playing major roles in all this, we can't do anything but get better."

And the Capitals' "kids" know little of Washington's previous knack for falling into losing habits. Gaetan Duchesne, Alan Haworth, rookie defenseman Scott Stevens don't fret over the occasional falter. They just keep playing hockey.

"We had so many guys on our team before who had been through the bad times," said Mike Gartner, who remembers all too clearly. "They'd see a 4-1 lead dwindle, or see a 1-1 hockey game suddenly become 4-1 the other way. Subconsciously, you just thought, here we go again.

"But the new players, and not just the Montreal players (Langway, Engblom, Doug Jarvis, Craig Laughlin) but all the new players, have changed the attitude in everybody's mind," he said. "It's changed my mind. Now even when we're down two goals, I'm sure that we can win."

Stability on the roster has helped. The Capitals haven't brought a new face into the lineup since Glen Currie arrived from Hershey on Nov. 7.

When a regular is injured, Chris Valentine or Ted Bulley will fill in, but there is no continual shuffling of players, no juggling, struggling to test new players in new situations. And the injuries that have haunted the Capitals haven't happened.

Ryan Walter, who went to Montreal in the trade that began Washington's upswing, is impressed.

"The Capitals are really playing well," he said last week after the Canadiens had to come from behind to tie Washington. "The players have confidence now and they won't collapse when things go bad, the way it seemed to happen so often in the years I was there. When adversity would strike, you could see some guys just hang their heads instead of working twice as hard to overcome it."

Now even the daily grunt of practice is more than just a grind for the Capitals.

"Everything moves in practice," said Langway. "The worst thing in practice is when everybody stands around, and your feet get cold. But we move. We don't have that many skating drills. We skate with the puck, have lots of game situations. There is a lot of pressure (to do well) in practice and, at game time, it's natural to do the same things.

"We're more relaxed. Winning is a major part of all that. There's no fun when you're losing."

Maruk, who has never been to a postseason game in his career at California, Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington, is anticipating the best fun of all this season when the Capitals do not have to pray for a miracle.

"When the playoffs come around," he said, "I'll be a pretty excited person."