It happens every January. While much of North America turns into a deep freeze, the Washington Capitals burn up the National Hockey League.

Two years ago, the Capitals were 19-15-11 on Jan. 18. They lost only one of their next 11 games, finished at a 20-10-5 clip and earned their first playoff berth.

Last season Washington was slogging along at 19-20-3 on Jan. 8. Losing only one of the next 18 games, the Capitals closed at 29-7-2 for 101 points and second place in the Patrick Division.

After staggering out of the blocks with a 6-8-5 mark this season, the Capitals woke up early, losing only one game between Nov. 23 and Dec. 23. Although the 12-1-2 record over that month was most welcome, there was concern from at least one source, goalie Pat Riggin, that the team might run out of gas before the stretch drive.

Instead, the Capitals seem to be enjoying another hot streak in January. Since Christmas, they are 11-2, and their winning streak stands at five as they head into a big weekend series against the New York Islanders, Saturday at Nassau Coliseum (WDCA-TV-20 at 5 p.m.) and Sunday at sold-out Capital Centre.

Coach Bryan Murray, who seems to have all the answers except how to win in October, thinks that the club's youth and togetherness generate enthusiasm that carries it forward while older, jaded teams encounter midseason doldrums.

A year ago, Washington was the NHL's youngest team. The latest rosters show the Capitals with an average age of 25.3 years; Toronto is youngest at 24.1, with Boston and Philadelphia next at 24.9.

"We're not as young as a year ago, but we're still a young hockey team and we don't have the midseason blahs that some others have," Murray said. "Also, we use everybody on our roster, and that creates a fair amount of enthusiasm.

"From the mental view, there are two reasons for our January success -- we rely on team togetherness and we emphasize disciplined play. As a unit, we get to playing pretty good by this time. Halfway through, things fit together.

"Also, we don't rely as heavily on one or two individuals as other teams do. We have our quality players certainly, but people who think Rod Langway is playing 40 minutes are dead wrong. He's there in the crucial spots, but we use six defensemen, and we use four lines, and except for a few individual hockey games, nobody gets overworked.

"There's one more factor, and it's a pretty important one. We take every game pretty seriously.

"We're well versed through scouting or video or whatever, no matter who we play. Ever since I've come here, I've tried to make every game we play an important game, and I think it's paid dividends."

That philosophy has paid off in such statistics as a 9-0-2 record against Norris Division teams, following Wednesday's 3-2 victory in Chicago, and a road record of 13-6-6, which matches Stanley Cup champion Edmonton for most points earned away from home.

"Any time this team goes on the road, we take the approach that the game is harder to play and the home team has certain advantages," Murray said. "We use the matchups they try to get as a motivating tool. And the guys who go out in what you might consider unfavorable matchups usually do a pretty good job."

One of the things motivating the Capitals is the absence of past success. Except for the playoff sweep of Philadelphia last April, there is little for the club to boast about.

"The big thing everybody wants is for the team to finish in first place," said Bob Carpenter, whose seventh two-goal game of the season in Chicago boosted his production to 37, only four short of Joe Mullen's NHL record for a U.S.-born player. "The Bullets have banners in Capital Centre, Georgetown has a banner and we want to see a Capitals banner, not just No. 7."

The only memento of the Capitals' first 10 seasons in evidence at the Centre, of course, is Yvon Labre's No. 7 sweater, hanging from the rafters in memory of a man who never quit in the face of incredible adversity.

In Labre's first two seasons here, the Capitals won only three of 28 games in January. Like the weather patterns, the hockey results have changed.