The number was "1." It wasn't a prank or a joke. Not any more.

That's "No. 1," as in first place in the Patrick Division, the toughest neighborhood in the National Hockey League.

That's where the Capitals are: on top of the standings. Ahead of the New York Islanders, the Philadelphia Flyers and waaaay ahead of the New York Rangers, who thought they'd be good this season.

The Capitals also are No. 1 in the sense that, after their 14-2-2 binge in the last few weeks, they have the most points in the entire Wales Conference. For that matter, you can throw in the whole Norris Division, too, because nobody over there can match the Capitals.

In fact, only the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers have more points and can hold their heads higher than the Capitals.

"We're as good as anybody," said Capitals owner Abe Pollin this week, then added, " 'he said, smiling.' "

In the '70s, the Capitals had catchy season mottoes, but such records as 8-67-5 and 11-59-10 cured them of that. Since you can't be Better Than Everybody until you're As Good As Anybody, maybe Pollin has hit on a new team buzz phrase.

Perhaps nothing is more fun in sports than watching a team come into its own -- find its style, realize its power, discover its true level.

That's what is happening with the Washington Capitals right now. Naturally, the whole NHL knows the Capitals were good enough last season to have the league's fifth-best record and win one game in the division playoff finals. But that's still back-in-the-pack stuff. Now the question is: "How good is good?"

In 1982-'83, the team made the playoffs for the first time. Last season, it won a playoff series. Now what? Division champion? Conference champion? Even Stanley Cup champion?

"Winning the division (regular season) is really a team goal," star right winger Mike Gartner said this week. "It's one of those steppingstones a team reaches. We'd like to have one of those (division championship) flags for the ceiling like the Islanders and Flyers do."

On Wednesday night at Capital Centre, the Capitals hinted broadly how good they might soon be as they thumped the Flyers, 6-0, as though the former Broad Street Bullies had mugged Santa. Actually, Washington just was miffed because, three days before, the Flyers had taken advantage of the Capitals' fatigue to win by three goals.

Beat us in the Spectrum, will you? Take that. And that and that and . . .

The sun don't shine on the same false teeth all the time. The Capitals no longer take well to being beaten. Well, they never actually enjoyed it. They just couldn't do much about it.

Now, if you give them a return engagement, they may hand you your helmet. With your head still in it.

On Thursday night, the Capitals took what may have been an even bigger step when they faced down the Islanders in Uniondale, 5-4, in overtime. "It's got to give them something to think about," said Rod Langway after the Capitals ended a run of six losses to the four-time champions.

"Where we have to prove ourselves is to win our division," General Manager David Poile said. "Before the Flyer game, we were 0-4-1 against Philadelphia and the Islanders. That can tend to wear on you. We have to establish that we can beat them, ideally in the regular season, though the playoffs are more important."

In a span of 27 hours this week, the Capitals proved they could win a revenge game with relish, then back it up with the toughest sort of road victory on the Island. We may be seeing a team build a champion's portfolio before our eyes.

The whole feeling of this team has changed dramatically in just two years since Coach Bryan Murray first crafted a winner. Then, Bobby Carpenter and Scott Stevens (at ages 19 and 18) seemed shy off ice and often tentative on it.

Now, Carpenter has found himself as a first-rate scorer (18 points in the last 18 games) and defenseman Stevens is so valuable and versatile that Murray moves him up to wing on the power play.

"That way, I can skate all that offense out of my system, go crazy and run around like one of those 290-pound NFL linemen when they get a fumble and start running," said a beaming Stevens, who has seven goals and 27 points already.

"I wish he were twins," Murray said, adding that the only reason he doesn't mention Stevens for the NHL all-star team is that "I don't want to get him there that quick."

Actually, the Capitals already have four players of all-star quality. Carpenter and Gartner can deal out slap shots on anybody's line. Behind them, anchoring the defense that still is the Capitals' defining characteristic, is as unlikely a Mutt-and-Jeff duo as you'll see: Norris trophy defenseman Rod Langway and Pat Riggin, the Sporting News' first-team all-star goalie.

Already, the Capitals are beginning to get some of the peripheral look of winners. For instance, when Pollin walked through the locker room Wednesday, the friend with him was Daniel Boorstin, the librarian of Congress, whose last book was entitled "The Discoverers."

A lot of civilized folks may start discovering the Capitals pretty soon. That's what bandwagons are all about.

"My son gave me one of those fake newspaper headlines years ago," said Pollin. "It said, 'Caps and Bullets Win. Pollin Takes Champagne Bath.'

"Well, we live and hope."

Those hopes no longer are pipe dreams. Under Poile and Murray, the Capitals have established the sort of winning progression that usually culminates in flags for a ceiling.

"Teams that have tradition, you don't lose that overnight, eh?" Poile said. "The Redskins expect to win. It's a fine line. But when a team has it, you know."

As yet, the Washington Capitals might not expect to win.

But they're beginning to suspect.