Craig Laughlin spent his high school days at Toronto's Jarvis Collegiate, two blocks from Maple Leaf Gardens, often daydreaming about how nice it would be to play for the Maple Leafs.

Reality sometimes turns out better than boyhood dreams, and Laughlin is delighted he will be wearing a Washington uniform when the Maple Leafs bring the NHL's poorest record (7-16-3) to Capital Centre tonight at 7:35.

Despite the diligence with which he screens opposing goaltenders from teammates' slap shots, Laughlin is no dummy, as he can verify by displaying his bachelor's degree from Clarkson College.

What leads Laughlin to place himself so frequently in the path of a puck traveling 100 mph and defenders' sticks wielded like axes is the paycheck that feeds himself, his wife Linda and his son Kyle. His principal wish, other than to be spared a slap shot to the head, is to continue picking up that check for a few more years.

Not by his own choice, Laughlin is playing out his option. But if he maintains his scoring pace (six goals and 17 assists in 26 games) and his contributions to the success of linemates Alan Haworth and Greg Adams, he figures to be rewarded handsomely at season's end.

Laughlin's courage in jamming the net has paid off frequently for the Capitals. He distracted St. Louis goalie Rick Wamsley on Thursday, enabling Scott Stevens to score the winner in overtime. The game before, in New Jersey, Stevens scored under similar circumstances. In a 2-2 tie last month at Boston, a slap shot by Larry Murphy banged off Laughlin's hip for the tying goal.

"Locker is doing much more now than he has before, holding the puck and making the play, and he's been consistently strong throughout the game," said Coach Bryan Murray. "His willingness to go to the front of the net is a big factor. The success of our power play (third in the NHL) is the result of a lot of things he's doing in front of the net.

"He's a holler guy, a very positive guy, and he provides leadership and noise in the room . . . He knows what he has to do. His shortcoming is speed, but he plays with his head very well.

"That's a valuable line and so often he's the guy who makes it go."

Although some would say he was out of his mind to risk injury in front of the net, Laughlin is a thinking man's moving target.

"It's all timing; timing so you won't get picked off by the defenseman and timing so you won't get hit by the shot," Laughlin said. "I was watching Scotty closely in the overtime and just as he got ready to shoot, I cut in front. As long as the puck is on net, anything can happen."

There is far more to such a play than meets the spectator's eye, and it does not always end in a happy result. Saturday against Vancouver, for example, Laughlin was struck by a Mike Gartner shot -- a traumatic experience itself -- which caromed wide of the net. During the Canucks' previous visit, Laughlin was penalized for interference against goaltender Richard Brodeur and an apparent goal by Dave Christian was nullified.

"I get in the crease a lot, but usually the referee will be there saying 'Move' and when he does, I'll move out," Laughlin said. "Of course, if the defenseman pushes me in, I'll stay there. Most of the time, I can feel where the lines are and I know not to go in too much.

"Most goaltenders will try to hit you in the back of the ankles with their stick. It doesn't hurt, and I figure if they're whacking me, they're not thinking about the puck. The key is to get them to start thinking about you. It may get them just off their game enough to let the puck get in.

"There is a chance of getting hurt, of course, but the key is to be prepared, mentally and physically. You have to keep your head up and use your peripheral vision. You need to know when a player is getting ready to shoot and, if you see a check coming, you have to plant your feet and push back." Keeping his head, up and otherwise, Laughlin has missed only seven games in 3 1/3 seasons with Washington. His previous high NHL production was 52 points two years ago and at his current rate, he would finish this season with 71.

"I had a lot of problems last year," said Laughlin, whose wife's father died while she was pregnant. "Now my family's fine and I can think hockey all the time.

"I wanted this to be a fun year, and so far it has been. Of course, there's still a long way to go. But the way our line has been playing, we're getting plenty of ice time and we're gaining confidence.

"The big thing is that we're playing well enough to stay together. Last year I think I played on 18 different lines, as a left wing, a right wing and a center. I'd be on the fourth line one game, the first line the next game and then maybe the third line. I'd get 10 minutes of ice time one night and 29 minutes the next.

"Now it's consistent and I should be more consistent. And the contract is turning out to be positive, if anything. It's making me play better, because my future and my family's future is at stake."