While their workaholic ways have carried the Washington Capitals to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League, one nagging concern has cast a shadow over the surge. That is the physical condition of the ultimate workaholic, team captain Rod Langway.

Langway, who lost 11 pounds while coughing his way through recent games, passed up yesterday's practice for a complete battery of hospital tests, and his resulting clearance to play brought a sense of relief to him, his family and the entire club.

"They took all kinds of tests and decided I had bronchitis," Langway said. "They gave me special pills and medication and they said it should take care of the infection in my lungs in three or four days.

"My family was more scared than anything. They thought maybe I had mono (mononucleosis) and maybe I'd have to move away from the family for a while. Even pneumonia was talked about.

"The worst game for me was Chicago (Wednesday). That maybe should have been one I didn't play. I had flu then with a fever and coughing and that turned into bronchitis.

"I was feeling better on the ice Sunday, but as soon as I went off I was spitting up phlegm and coughing, and I couldn't catch my breath. I'm glad I had the checkup and I can stop worrying about it."

"I asked if a couple of days' rest would be advisable and I was told, 'Not really,' " said Coach Bryan Murray. "So Rod will play tomorrow (Tuesday) in Detroit. It's the best possible news for us, because Rod wasn't in good shape after one period Sunday. He was hurting pretty bad, but with Darren (Veitch) getting hurt, I couldn't sit him out."

Veitch suffered separated rib cartilage in the first period and will be out about a week. His spot will be filled tonight by Peter Andersson, who returned from Binghamton after completing a six-game "shape-up" tour.

The next big date for the Capitals, after leaving the New York Islanders doubly dismayed, is a Feb. 9 Capital Centre contest against Philadelphia.

By that time, if they can maintain the level of play that has carried them to a seven-game winning streak and a seven-point Patrick Division lead over the Flyers, the Capitals figure to have a fat first-place cushion.

Beginning tonight in Detroit, Washington faces a five-game stretch in which only one foe, fair-to-middling Winnipeg, is above .500.

The immediate opponents, the Red Wings, have won just once in their last 15 games. Two of the five contests are against Toronto, the NHL's worst team, and the other is a home engagement with a Los Angeles team that has lost four in a row to Washington.

"Most of these teams have played awfully well against us in the past," Murray said. "But if we are motivated and really want to do a job and get some points, the next two weeks give us that chance."

Murray conceded that he was surprised by the club's current circumstances, although first place has been the goal since last season ended.

"Because of the excellent second half last year, we felt it would be hard to top it," Murray said. "So we considered 95 to 100 points a reasonable objective. To do what we're doing and the way we're doing it is a pleasant surprise."

After five-eighths of the 80-game schedule, Washington has amassed 69 points. Over the full season, that projects to 110, and the Capitals actually have been moving at a higher rate than that following a mediocre 6-8-5 start.

Bob Mason, who owns an eight-game winning streak, will tend goal for the Capitals tonight and also in Friday's home game against Toronto. Mason has not played since Jan. 17, when he beat Pittsburgh, and this is his first game on the road since Dec. 16, when he defeated the Rangers in New York.

"I've worked hard in practice, but when you sit for 12 days, you have to get in there and get your teammates' confidence back," Mason said. "It may take me a period or so to get back to where I was. A lot depends on how the game goes.

"It's nice to win eight in a row and, hopefully, the way the team is playing I can keep the streak going. But I don't really think about it. That's in the past. What I have to do is go out there tomorrow and stop the puck. It's that simple."

Winger Gary Sampson, missing since Dec. 27 with ligament damage to his left knee, skated yesterday and said his legs felt "weak." However, he hopes to be back in the lineup by Sunday, when Winnipeg visits Capital Centre.

Murray conceded that target was a possibility, but suggested that Tuesday in Toronto was a more realistic date for Sampson's return.

As for Sunday's mid-ice confrontation with Islander Duane Sutter, which produced a variety of contorted postgame remarks, Murray had a last word: "I don't want to talk about it any more. Enough is enough."