Statistically, there is not much difference between these Washington Capitals and those who finished last season with 101 points, third best in the National Hockey League.

The Capitals have 44 points, four ahead of last season's pace. They have scored the same number of goals (128) while yielding five more (102) going into tonight's 7:35 game against the Quebec Nordiques at Capital Centre (HTS cable).

Nevertheless, the potential exists for the Capitals to go far beyond previous achievements. Certainly, Coach Bryan Murray is optimistic after watching the rejuvenation of goalie Al Jensen, the confident play of rookie defenseman Kevin Hatcher, the contributions of defenseman Peter Andersson and the unprecedented offensive success of linemates Alan Haworth, Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin.

What Murray awaits now is the return to form of Bob Carpenter, and he hopes it will be accompanied by a surge by Mike Gartner and a breakout by Jorgen Pettersson.

Those ingredients, predictable on past performance, would make the Capitals a Stanley Cup contender. The opportunity for greatness is at hand; it might not hang around.

"We all have to take it seriously," Gartner said of the cup. "We have six or seven guys in the prime of careers right now. You don't know how many chances you'll get, so you have to go for it when the chance is there."

Although Gartner's figures of 18 goals and 19 assists approximate last season's 32-game marks of 17-24, he has only one goal in the last seven games. Carpenter, a 27-goal scorer at last year's Christmas break, has a mere eight. His game-winning goal Sunday in Quebec was his first in 10 games.

Pettersson has only one goal in seven games with Washington. His timing still is off, after limited action in Hartford, but he has shown signs of his promise as a left wing with a scoring touch. He scored a sensational game-winning goal in Edmonton; on a breakaway in Winnipeg, he faked goalie Brian Hayward out of the net, then slid the puck through the crease.

If those three figure to contribute more over the balance of the season, the Capitals must hope that the current overachievers maintain their pace. Haworth alone has as many goals (17) as he, Laughlin and Adams had at this stage a year ago. Throw in Adams' 10, which match his career high, and Laughlin's nine and it is obvious how much the line has meant to the team.

Two others ahead of last year's 32-game statistics are Dave Christian, with 18 goals compared to 11, and Bengt Gustafsson, who has 30 points to match against an injury-affected 11.

"Very definitely, we are a better team right now," Murray said. "We have grown offensively, and more people are trying to do more things. We have more people with a chance to score. We have better people with more experience.

"The development of Haworth, Adams and Laughlin gives us a third line we didn't have last year. I think it will last. We've gotten good, consistent things from them.

"With a little adjustment in position, Gus (Gustafsson) and Davy Christian have become a solid combination. We've also seen the growth of a couple of young guys. Scott Stevens over the year should be a force to be reckoned with. Kevin Hatcher is a better defensive defenseman than Mike McEwen was, and he does have an offensive dimension, too. Peter Andersson has been contributing the way we hoped he would last year.

"There hasn't been a noticeable dropoff in many guys. Bobby (Carpenter) is struggling, but we know he and Mike are going to score more. Mike has played really well. His overall play has been excellent. Bobby has to play better, but he showed signs on the road trip of doing a few things. He played harder in Quebec, and it paid off in a big goal.

"We also have better size and strength, which is so important in our division. Pettersson and (Ed) Kastelic give us a step up in that respect over Doug Jarvis and Butsy Erickson."

Murray has good feelings about the goaltending, the area in which the New York Islanders have proven superior in the playoffs the past three seasons. Jensen is undefeated in his last 11 starts and Pete Peeters, who will face Quebec tonight, has adapted well to his new teammates while posting a 4-2-1 record.

"Al Jensen in particular has been just exceptional," Murray said. "He's as good as he's ever been and he feels good about himself. Pete Peeters has made a contribution and when he's adjusted to us, he should be a top goaltender for us.

"We've had streaky type goaltending in the past. Some of it has been exceptional, but some has been not so good."

The Capitals have been playing so well, with only two defeats in 17 games, that Murray is hesitant to make any changes. That makes the situation difficult for David Jensen and Gary Sampson, who are in town to discuss their future with management after helping to lift Binghamton into playoff contention in the American Hockey League.

"We have to decide whether they are better off playing a lot in Binghamton or playing less here," Murray said. "It's not an easy decision."

It does, however, beat searching for bodies to fill obvious holes.