In the Washington Capitals' 43rd game last season, Bengt Gustafsson accomplished the greatest individual feat in the team's 11-year history by scoring five goals against the Flyers in Philadelphia. At that point, the Swede had amassed 22 goals and 25 assists.

Tonight, when the Capitals entertain Minnesota at Capital Centre in their 44th game of this campaign, Gustafsson brings with him statistics that include three goals and 17 assists.

If those figures are disappointing, both Gustafsson and Coach Bryan Murray hardly see them as reason for panic. First, Gustafsson missed 20 games with a recurring hamstring injury. Second, he continues to be the Capitals' premier playmaker and the team's best forward at both ends of the ice.

"All I've said to Gus is 'Shoot more often,' " Murray said. "If he doesn't score another goal this season, he's still a very valuable hockey player for us.

"He makes the people he plays with a lot better hockey players. He enables guys to get in better position for plays at the net. And you can't make a mistake or he'll burn you. He can really make somebody look bad.

"He's so smart on the ice and he does play good defense. Sometimes it looks like he's standing around, but he gets excellent body position and eliminates the man that way. It would be great if he could score a lot of goals, but if Butsy (Erickson) and David (Christian) score because of him, that's okay, too."

Under ordinary circumstances, Gustafsson knows that three goals past the halfway mark of the season would be reason for concern. But he has accepted the fact that the injury has destroyed any opportunity for a big campaign as an individual.

"This season is screwed up anyway," Gustafsson said. "I'm not worried about scoring and I can't press myself. Maybe one day things will loosen up, but right now I just feel if I score, I score. As long as the team wins, I have no worries about it."

Gustafsson has a knack for driving opponents crazy. During the Capitals' recent 4-1 victory at Quebec, for example, he stole the puck from Peter Stastny three times on one shift.

When Gustafsson first came into the NHL, he made opponents look silly with some spectacular offensive moves. But one night, after he had skated through the entire Toronto team, Coach Danny Belisle took him aside and pointed out that he could expect to pay a price if he continued to show up opponents.

Gustafsson recalled that warning and, although he said he had not thought about it since, he has picked his spots in recent years. He takes enough of a beating from opponents' elbows and sticks without inciting further violence, but he downgrades any concern about the physical pounding that often leaves him with purplish bruises decorating various parts of his anatomy.

"I like people running at me," Gustafsson said. "If you see them coming, you can just twist your body and they miss you. It's good if they're thinking about you and not the puck. I leave the puck, step aside and then get it back."

Besides handling the puck so adroitly that teammates jokingly claim he can fake out three players without moving his skates, Gustafsson is one of the NHL's best at controlling off-target passes by teammates or opponents.

"It's nothing I've really worked on," Gustafsson said. "I use a long stick, and that helps. But mostly it's natural. Maybe I worry about the puck more. Some guys worry what to do before they get the puck, but I concentrate on the puck.

"I usually get the puck when I'm standing still, which can be a big problem. But with somebody like David, I know where he's going, so I'm able to get rid of it very quickly. If I have time, I always look for someone with speed to give it to.

"But sometimes you just react naturally. When you start thinking, that's when you get in trouble."

Erickson, who has scored 14 goals after collecting only 12 all last season, does not have to stop and think about the reason for his greater production.

"Gus handles the puck so well that all I try to do is get in position to shoot the puck," Erickson said. "If I'm there, he'll usually get it to me."


Bob Mason, who earned a 3-2 victory in Minnesota Dec. 12, goes after his seventh straight triumph in the Capitals' goal tonight . . . The North Stars are at their healthiest point of the season, with Dino Ciccarelli, Bo Berglund and Dennis Maruk all back from the disabled list. Ex-Capital Maruk was out almost three weeks with a slight ligament tear in his knee . . . With their return, Minnesota farmed out Brian Lawton and Tim Trimper . . . Washington winger Mike Gartner failed to put a shot on goal for the first time this season in Saturday's 5-3 loss to New Jersey. "There was a lot of clutching and grabbing against Gartner and (Bob) Carpenter, but apparently that's okay in this league against everybody but (Wayne) Gretzky," Murray said . . . The Capitals' last four games have featured empty-net goals, two for and two against. goals