The Washington Capitals were in Pittsburgh last March when the Penguins dealt Randy Carlyle to Winnipeg for a first-round pick, their third such choice in last June's draft.

Although the Capitals won that night, 5-2, further exposing the Penguins as the National Hockey League's worst team, Pittsburgh General Manager Eddie Johnston could not help looking like a cat sneaking up on a saucer of cream.

Johnston kept on smiling to the end of an horrendous 16-58-6 season. Then he signed a new coach, Bob Berry, and used his three draft choices to corral center Mario Lemieux, defenseman Doug Bodger and right wing Roger Belanger.

The turnabout, no doubt envisioned by Johnston during those dreadful days of March, has been startling. When the Capitals face the Penguins tonight in Pittsburgh (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30) -- with a return date Thursday at Capital Centre -- they will be meeting a fourth-place club that is only two games shy of the .500 mark.

Just halfway into their schedule, the Penguins already boast more victories (17) and the same number of points (38) as they collected all last season.

The big difference, of course, is Lemieux, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder who looks to be one of the future superstars of the NHL. Although missing seven games with a knee injury, Lemieux leads the Penguins in scoring with 13 goals and 32 points.

It is his playmaking that has turned left wing Warren Young into a 25-goal scorer. Young, a rookie who celebrated his 29th birthday on Friday, had collected only two previous NHL goals in an undistinguished pro career that included previous stops at Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Minnesota, Nashville and Birmingham.

Until he was teamed with Lemieux, Young was saddled with a termination contract that indicated the need for finding another line of work come June.

There seems little doubt that the Penguins worked hard -- in reverse -- last season to gain the right to draft Lemieux. They won only three of their last 21 games and managed to finish three points behind New Jersey. Despite criticism for such a foldup, the Penguins are reaping the benefits, not only on the ice but at the box office, where average attendance is 10,436, more than 3,500 per game over last year.

The Capitals were given an idea of Lemieux's potential on an earlier visit, when he controlled the puck on one shift despite the attempts of three Capitals to take it away. After he was checked by Darren Veitch, Lemieux limped to the dressing room, but he returned for limited third-period duty and set up Young's game-tying goal.

When Lemieux was unable to play in the next seven games, the Penguins staggered, winning only one. But they revived with his return and in their most recent appearance, defeated Edmonton, 4-3, before a sellout crowd of 16,033 at the Civic Arena.

Lemieux became an instant standout from his first NHL game, when he scored an unassisted goal at 2:59 of the first period in Boston. Twice he has put together six-game assist streaks and he seems a likely candidate to play in the NHL All-Star Game.

"Lemieux has met every expectation that people have talked about him," Johnston said. "The indication is that when he's in our lineup, we're a different hockey club."

Although Lemieux rolled up 162 goals and 172 assists in 84 games with the Laval Voisins last season, there were some doubts about him, simply because of the mediocre opposition he faced in the Quebec Junior League.

"He was a man playing among boys," said Washington General Manager David Poile. "He could score four goals and not be doing anything out there.

"But he's clearly the most talented player to come along in years. Can you imagine what he'll be like when he's 23, with maybe 25 more pounds?"

"There was a question about him at one time, maybe because of the way he dominated the league," said Jack Button, the Capitals' director of player personnel. "If he'd really wanted to, he might have doubled his point production with Laval.

"There's no doubt he's going to be an outstanding hockey player when he reaches full maturity. He's an expert skater with great agility and he's going to be a dominant player. He's only 19 now, and we tend to forget that in an athletic sense some of these guys are babies.

"The Penguins' situation figures to make him better. They're in a playoff spot and they're relying on him, so he's getting all the ice time in the world. They can go along with his mistakes and work on his defensive shortcomings. It can only enhance his development."

If everything is suddenly coming up roses in Pittsburgh, however, the glory years are over in Laval. Where more than 2,000 a game showed up in ancient Centre Sportif Laval to watch Lemieux last season, the crowds are hovering around 750 to watch this year's sub-.500 club.

Coach Jean Begin was fired early and owner Claude Fournel commented, "This is like a cold shower." That's anglicized French for taking a bath.