When Ryan Walter played for the Washington Capitals, he made several visits to the D.C. Children's Hospital Center. His reward was a good feeling inside.

Now in his third season with the Montreal Canadiens, Walter recently visited a similar facility here. Greater notice was taken; the next day his picture, snapped at a child's bedside, appeared in color on the front page of the Montreal Gazette.

"Hockey is a big thing here, more so than Vancouver (his home) or Washington," Walter said today. "They're in so much awe of hockey players it's amazing. They want your autograph to show people. In Washington, people were not in awe. They wanted to know you as a person, and I liked that."

Hockey intensity is at a frenetic stage here as the Canadiens prepare for a home-and-home series against Washington, Thursday at the Forum (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30 p.m.) and Friday at Capital Centre. Montreal shares first place in the Adams Division with arch-rival Quebec; the two teams are a point ahead of Buffalo, coached by former Montreal boss Scotty Bowman.

"Quebec slipped into a tie with us the other night, and we haven't played since," Walter said. "We still have one game left with them and we're looking forward to it, because we've played them very well this year (5-1-1)."

Although successful against the Nordiques and the rest of the NHL's top teams, the Canadiens have stumbled against the weak sisters, or they would have wrapped up first place long ago.

Against the other 12 teams with .500 or better records, Montreal has a 22-13-7 record, second only to Edmonton. Against the eight chronic losers, the Canadiens are 12-12-4. They lost all three games to Toronto, the worst team in the league.

"Isn't that something?" Walter said. "Possibly it's the way we play. We seem to be more effective against the good offensive teams. We shut down the neutral ice, the same way Washington does. But we do have a bit of a tough time with a team that comes in and gets a lead on us, especially if we're not right on top of our game."

When Walter skates against the Capitals Thursday, he will see them -- for a change -- as just another opponent. When he returns to Capital Centre Friday for the Canadiens' only visit of the season, however, he admits there will be a special feeling.

"The last time Washington was in here (Dec. 20, a 2-2 tie) was the first time since the trade (Sept. 10, 1982) that I felt really free to go and play, and it was a fun game," Walter said. "The other nights I was a little cramped. I don't know how the Sutters do it.

"But even though I'm over the point where emotion clouds your view, Capital Centre will always be special, never just another rink. I look forward to going back there. I enjoyed my time in Washington. I didn't make the trade or ask to be traded."

Walter is aware that Rod Langway has made greater contributions in Washington than he has made here. But he hopes he can make the ultimate contribution by helping the Canadiens win another Stanley Cup.

"Rod has played really well and I can understand any comparison to me made in that sense," Walter said. "I feel I'm starting to get into this team, be part of it, but it's taken me a while, where Rod just fit in.

"My goal is to win the Stanley Cup and if I have to be humbled a bit, that's fine with me. I've had a tough year goal wise (16 in 62 games), but I think I'm reaching the time where I'll get a few. If I do, it's certainly the right time, the time when they'll do some good."

When Walter returns to Capital Centre, he will not find himself on the bench he used as a Capital. Flooded by fan protests after swapping ends, benches and penalty boxes Tuesday, General Manager David Poile will return to the old ways Friday.