Darren Veitch's boyish good looks are marred somewhat these days by the jagged reminders of the stitching that repaired the damage rendered by a wayward Montreal stick.

Despite the facial blemishes, Veitch finds it easy to smile. Now, at last, the 24-year-old defenseman is justifying the faith the Washington Capitals placed in him when they made him a first-round draft pick in 1980.

This is Veitch's fifth NHL season. In each of the past four, he also has served time in the American League. The way he looked in training camp, he seemed destined for a low-level start once again.

A sparkling performance in the concluding exhibition against Philadelphia altered the intentions of General Manager David Poile and Coach Bryan Murray. The plane ticket to Binghamton was withheld and Veitch opened the season with the Capitals.

Veitch has retained his spot in the lineup for all 38 games and has shown steady improvement, to the extent that he is playing the soundest hockey of his life and Murray looks to him in the most difficult of circumstances.

During Saturday's 3-2 victory over Hartford, with Washington facing a two-man shortage for 1:41 and Rod Langway watching from the penalty box, Murray sent Veitch, Scott Stevens and Doug Jarvis out to confront the Whalers' power play. They kept Hartford from attempting a shot for 1:04, until Sylvain Turgeon scored from a difficult angle.

Later, with Hartford leading, 2-1, Veitch lunged to bat down Dave Tippett's attempted clear at the right point, moved confidently toward the net and beat goalie Greg Millen with a well-aimed drive low on the short side.

During Thursday's 5-4 victory over the New York Islanders, Veitch made a good pass out of the corner to set up Dave Christian for the goal that created a 3-3 tie. He attempted a career-high eight shots on goal and was plus-three for the game.

One of Veitch's best performances came in Boston Dec. 1, when he earned three assists in a 5-4 victory over the Bruins, who visit Capital Centre Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

Over the last 19 games, in which Washington has a 15-2-2 record, Veitch has two goals and 10 assists. More important, he has been steady defensively, attaining a plus-15 rating.

"From Day 1 of the regular season, Darren has played well," Murray said. "He's been solid. I have more than enough confidence in him now to put him in any situation, and he responds well."

Murray's confidence is reflected in Veitch's confidence. He was unsure of himself at the start, coming off a serious knee injury and aware that Poile had signed three free-agent defensemen during the summer.

"I didn't start out too good, but they stuck with me and gave me confidence," Veitch said. "David kept me here and Bryan played me. He's been playing me in key situations and that boosts my confidence.

"Being healthy helps, too. It just feels good to be able to play every game and not have to worry about it. The way I kept getting hurt the last couple of years, it was hard to keep from worrying about it happening again.

"Everybody's playing so well, you just go out and do your job. It makes it easier on everybody. I'm trying to concentrate on playing well defensively. If the points come, fine, but that's not the big thing."

Counting the overtime on Long Island, the Capitals have scored in 16 consecutive periods, a club record . . . Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner did not get a point Saturday, only the third time both have been shut out this season . . . Bryan Erickson's two goals against Hartford gave him 13, one more than he had all last season . . . The major penalty assessed Langway for his fight with Torrie Robertson was his first of the season and third in two years.