Until recently, Craig Laughlin of the Washington Capitals was most famous, if he was famous at all, as the only New Wave player in professional hockey.

In the NHL, the only thing rarer than having a punk haircut is having all 32 teeth in your mouth.

So anonymous was Laughlin that before a recent game in Detroit the night's trivia question was: Who was the fourth player acquired by the Capitals from Montreal, along with Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis and Brian Engblom, in "The Trade"?

The Capitals had been tipped to the quiz and, just so Laughlin could hear, started saying, "Who was the fourth guy? Alan Haworth, right? Yeah, Haworth, sure. Pretty tough question, though."

It's bad enough to be a trivia answer while you're still in midcareer, but when your teammates pretend they don't even know how you got on the team, it can make you think.

Especially if you're as sharp as Laughlin, who, next time he goes to get his hair spiked at one of those punk salons in Georgetown, figures he may go see David Bryne in his Big Suit in the New Wave classic "Stop Making Sense."

Not your typical hockey player.

Maybe that practical joke got Laughlin's motor started. Even Coach Bryan Murray says Laughlin "started the season with a six-week holiday."

Since that trivia quiz, Laughlin may have been the hottest player in the NHL, with 15 points in nine games.

Before the Capitals' 5-2 victory over the Islanders at Capital Centre yesterday, Laughlin came out on the ice, his short hair worthy of David Bowie, to receive the NHL's player of the week award.

Seldom has a more obscure, or more deserving and hard-working, player gotten a glamor award usually reserved for a Wayne Gretzky or Mike Bossy.

"I was real surprised that they picked a plumber like me," said Laughlin, grinning. "The greatest thrill of my life. I've never gotten an NHL award."

If Laughlin (Lock-lin) was shocked by his honor, think how the New Yorkers felt just 33 seconds after the National Anthem, when Laughlin scored yet another goal. Eight minutes later, Laughlin assisted on a score. "I'm a streak player. That first goal was into an empty net, but early in the season, I'd probably have shot it into the stands."

"Craig's been our unsung hero of late," said Capitals General Manager David Poile. "We now refer to it as 'The Laughlin Trade.'

"People tabbed him a 'throw-in' in that trade but he was never that. He wasn't a pretty skater or a big scorer. He's more a lunch-pail guy who works hard every day, plays with his head and has lots of determination.

"We wanted a work-ethic team here, and Laughlin fit right in.

"Of course," he added whimsically, "players using helmets have hurt GMs. Now you can't scout their hair. If I'd known about the haircut, we might have questioned the trade."

Actually, no Capital questions the trade three years ago for the now 27-year-old Laughlin. He's brought a smidgeon of talent and a ton of temperament to the team. "Craig Laughlin is a Capital in the definition we like to give that word," said Poile. "It's great for all the muckers and grinders in the league to see someone like Craig win (player of the week). In a way, maybe it was the league's way of recognizing all the players on our team who are like that."

Laughlin can play both wings, help kill penalties and also get some time on the power play. Murray says that, since pairing Laughlin with ironman Doug Jarvis, "it's very much like us having a bonus line. They're both smart and complement each other."

Among Laughlin's many roles is that of team jester. After some awkward goal on which he's plowed over a defender or gouged in a rebound, when he talks to reporters he'll completely distort the play into a thing of acrobatic beauty. If they refuse to accept his account, he'll say, "Maybe my wife'll believe it."

Usually, however, the limelight manages to avoid him. "No interviews today, Lou," Laughlin will tell the team public relations director when, of course, none have been scheduled.

Yesterday, it looked like his goal and assist might stand up for a 2-0 victory. Suddenly, the Islanders tied the score and normal heroic Capitals Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner had to save the day.

That suits the Toronto-born Laughlin, who graduated from Clarkson College. He just grins if a teammate spots a group of folks with orange hair, chains, leather and dayglow socks and says, "Is that Locker over there?"

"I like to be different, be my own man. I'd rather listen to basement tapes of some new rock group than hear the same top 40 songs 15 times," he said. "Besides, everybody's afraid of me (in the NHL). They think I'm crazy.

"Just kidding," he added, knowing his 5-foot-11, 198-pound frame isn't scaring away many goons.

Laughlin isn't just a typical Capital in his gung-ho attitude. He's also catching the team's infectious sense that it may be not just a contender but a champion.

"How many teams sweep the Islanders home-and-home in 24 hours? Beat them 10-3 (combined score)? It's unheard of.

"Bryan Murray told us before the game, 'We're the team to beat now. They (the Islanders) aren't the team to beat anymore,' " said Laughlin.

"We were scared to death going into their building to play them in the playoffs last year. That's changed. They are going to have to think about coming here now. They have to try to compete with us (not the other way around)."

Several days ago, hot goal-scorer Carpenter came up to Laughlin and said, "Nobody in the league has done a whole lot this week. If you have a good game tonight, you might be player of the week."

Carpenter was serious.

Laughlin just thought it was a joke.

Yesterday, when Laughlin got his plaque, the star told the role-player, "Now, be player of the month."

"That was a joke," said Carpenter.

Laughlin, however, seems to be taking the whole idea pretty seriously.

Sometimes it's better just to Stop Making Sense.