Bob Carpenter owns a collection of score sheets, dating back to his first game with the Washington Capitals. All the pages have one thing in common: his name is in the lineup.

When Carpenter skates out against the Calgary Flames tonight at Capital Centre, it will mark his 249th straight game, second only to Doug Jarvis' 729 among the current Capitals. It also will be the ninth appearance of the new, improved Carpenter, a legitimate candidate for NHL greatness.

Of the Capitals' first eight games, Carpenter has started five as a left wing, three as a center. All his efforts have one thing in common, however. Carpenter has played superbly.

"There have been only two periods where Bobby Carpenter has not played very well," Coach Bryan Murray said yesterday. "Beyond that, he has been outstanding. He's dominating situations, jumping in and helping his teammates, creating chances for himself and them. He's playing big and strong."

Carpenter has gotten at least one point in six straight games and leads the team in goals (six) and points (11). He has two game-winning goals and was headed for two others until the Capitals were tied in the third period at Philadelphia and Edmonton.

Just as noteworthy has been his defense; at least twice he has cleared pucks from in front of an open net with only opponents nearby.

Carpenter's performance is eons removed from his struggling start in 1983, when he had only two goals in Washington's first 21 games. Much of the difference stems from his good health and top condition, following a highly successful tour with Team USA in the Canada Cup. A lot of the improvement also results from maturity; it is often hard to realize that Carpenter, in his fourth NHL season, is only 21.

A year ago, he dislocated a shoulder in the closing exhibition game, the result of a wild swing in a fight with Pittsburgh's Marty McSorley. Less than a week later, he was in the lineup for the opener. He played all 80 games, but even a late-season surge left him with only 28 goals, a dropoff from the 32 of the two previous seasons.

"I couldn't shoot and I shouldn't have played," Carpenter said. "Looking back, it was a stupid thing to do. It got popped back into place and it was sore, but I figured the soreness would go away in a few days.

"Instead, I kept banging it and it healed very slowly. It was a month into the season before I felt right. Forgetting the first 25 games, I was happy with my goals and my plus-minus; and the way things happened for the team, the year wasn't lost."

"There's no question, in retrospect, that Bobby should have sat out a few games," Murray said. "He was the victim of something you love to see in a player: he can play with pain and he's always ready to go in the game.

"When he was hurt, we didn't know it was that bad. He took a couple of days off and said he was okay, and the doctor said there was a little soreness, but there shouldn't be a problem.

"It was sore, though, and he became very tentative. He took care of the shoulder, trying to avoid getting hit on it, and hurt his game."

The subpar season also affected Carpenter's bargaining power. Rather than sign a contract, he decided to play out his option this season. That does not mean he will go elsewhere, because the need for compensation generally makes NHL clubs reluctant to sign another's players. But it does ensure his performance this season will be reflected in his bank account for a few years to come.

"I discussed it with (General Manager) David (Poile), but we were so far off I didn't want to get involved in a lot of talk," Carpenter said. "I signed to play out my option, rather than talk after training camp, or talk after 10 games, or have it as a distraction at all.

"The pressure is on me to perform well and I like it that way. Next summer maybe there will be a little pressure on him."

Actually, Carpenter has been skating in a pressure cooker since the Capitals signed him out of St. John's Prep in Massachusetts in 1981, the first U.S.-born player ever to jump from high school hockey into the NHL.

Almost the entire season, Carpenter was hounded by the media, with more emphasis on side issues like his father's reflexive displeasure that Washington had outmaneuvered Hartford to draft him than on the actual games. Making things worse, the Capitals got off to a 1-14 start and Coach Gary Green was fired, to be replaced by Murray.

"It was difficult and I guess I didn't always handle it right," Carpenter said. "At times, after a bad game, I wanted to be by myself and think about it, but people always were all over there. There'd be five different guys and they'd all ask the same questions. Then the next city there'd be 10 more, asking the same thing.

"Usually, it had nothing to do with the game. It was always the same questions about how my father felt about me going to Washington, or whether my mother thought I should have gone to college. Questions about the game -- okay. But about my family, I didn't like that.

"The changes in the organization made it difficult, too. I didn't know many of the people and I had nobody to talk to. I was fond of Gary Green and it was a case of here today, gone tomorrow. In a way, though, it was a relief, because we could start all over. Everybody talked about the bad Capitals and I felt part of it."

"Expectations were tremendously high in training camp and there was a need to win," said Murray, who assisted Green at camp as the coach of the minor-league Hershey club. "Bobby was on the big line, he played the point on the power play -- then, besides all that, he put pressure on himself.

"When Gary was fired, it was an unsettling time for him (Carpenter). He didn't know what to expect from me. I put him on left wing, to protect him a little and give him a chance to learn the game better. Everybody needs time."

Carpenter resented the switch from center, the position he had played throughout his sensational high school career. However, he now realizes that in the long run it has made him a more versatile, valuable player.

"I don't mind playing left wing at all," he said. "If somebody is hurt, I'm the first to change. It gives me more ice time, it puts me more into the game, because moving to a different position makes me think more, and I like the responsibility."

Poile, who came to Washington a year after Carpenter, indicated in a recent radio interview that Carpenter might have been better off having spent a couple of years in college before joining the NHL. Carpenter disagrees.

"Right now, if I'd gone to college, I wouldn't be playing a major role with this team," he said. "I feel this year will be a very good year, but without the three years under my belt I'd probably be bouncing up and down like (rookie) Gary Sampson.

"With this team we've got, I wonder if I could even have made it. I'd never have played this well at this age. I needed the experience and there were lessons I had to learn. You can't get NHL experience in college. I'm just starting to get comfortable."

Carpenter also is starting to put pucks into the net with remarkable skill. Against Chicago, he skated in on a breakaway, shifted his stick to fake goalie Murray Bannerman and backhanded the puck behind him. Against Los Angeles, he stopped a rebound in the slot with his backhand, spun and scored on the forehand. In each case, a couple of years ago, he probably would have shot too quickly.

Carpenter has connected on six of 24 shots on goal, or 25 percent. A year ago, the success ratio was less than half that.

"It's just a matter of experience," he said. "I used to get about 300 shots and only 32 goals. You have to work on things like that, getting to know how much time you can take without losing the chance.

"The Canada Cup helped me a lot, giving me confidence. Everyone was loose and I was playing with the best people. It made me feel humble, but they treated you just like a regular person.

"The style we play, not going all out offensively, we don't have any 50-goal scorers. But playing with them, I get a lot of chances and we do need more scoring, so I hope that's a department I can fill."

In his last 35 regular-season games, Carpenter has scored 22 goals. Over an 80-game schedule, that figures out to 50. Barring injury, the new, improved Carpenter seems capable of it.