Suddenly, everything is clicking for the Washington Capitals. The team that was outdoing itself with its ineptitude a week ago has won three straight games impressively and established itself as a contender in the National Hockey League's Patrick Division.

The Capitals haven't done it with mirrors. In beating Chicago, Quebec and the New York Rangers, they got flawless penalty killing, offensive contributions from players who had been struggling and, most important, upgraded work by the defense.

"Our blueline corps as a whole had played pretty average, defensively as well as offensively," Coach Bryan Murray said yesterday, as he and most of the team enjoyed a day off.

"In the last three games, Rod (Langway) has played really well, which of course is a big plus for us. Scott (Stevens) has been steadier, not gambling as much. Larry Murphy played really well in Quebec and during the third period against Chicago.

"When you get the people going that you expect to play well, you're in pretty good shape.

"Mike McEwen has given us an added dimension with his quickness at the blueline and his ability to shoot hard and accurately from the blueline. He's going to play a few more games, until we get a full evaluation, but so far I've liked what I've seen."

Until the recent surge, Darren Veitch had been the Capitals' steadiest defenseman. Although he has not scored in the manner of years past, Veitch has been a solid positional defenseman.

With McEwen up as a seventh defender, it has been the lot of Timo Blomqvist (in Quebec) and Peter Andersson (in New York) to wear street clothes. Blomqvist was sharp when he returned to action against the Rangers and Murray hopes Andersson follows suit when he gets another chance. Andersson has been a major disappointment, since he was the best defenseman for runner-up Sweden in the Canada Cup.

"Peter pulled away from the play on the first goal in Quebec and I had a talk with him," Murray said. "I expected more from him this year. I thought he would be one of our take-charge guys back there.

"Timo has been good in penalty-killing situations, but I feel that five on five he maybe hasn't asserted himself as much as he could."

Goaltender Pat Riggin was outstanding in the three victories, which included his first shutout and first one-goal game of the season.

The Capitals will return to action Saturday afternoon in Boston, then will play four home games in eight nights against Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Winnipeg and Detroit.

For the nine-game stretch beginning with the game in Quebec, Murray had established a goal of 12 points. The two road victories provide a good head start toward a promised reward. In the previous 10-game segment, the club managed only seven points of a projected 13 and each player contributed $50 to charity.

"There was a fair amount of pressure that we put on ourselves, looking beyond individual games," Murray said. "Some guys were trying to do too much and departing from the team concept.

"It's funny how things go. You'll have a dry spell for a while, but once you get it going, things seem to happen for you. In New York, we got the tip-in instead of the Rangers, and Pat made the big save instead of (Glen) Hanlon. I just hope it stays that way for a while."