If there were any lingering suspicions that Alan Haworth was playing over his head for the Washington Capitals, they may be cast aside. Instead, it seems certain that Haworth spent the first five years of his National Hockey League career at the wrong position.

When Haworth was shifted to center in the eighth game of the current season, he had a record as a winger of no goals and two assists and had a minus-two rating.

On Tuesday, as the Capitals defeated New Jersey, 4-2, Haworth scored his 30th goal. That figure marks a career high, as do his 34 assists. His plus-31 rating is the best on the team.

Haworth's remarkable individual statistics have not distracted him from the principal task at hand, overhauling Philadelphia for first place in the Patrick Division. With their victory Tuesday and the Flyers' loss to Buffalo, the Capitals moved within one point of Philadelphia.

"Finishing first means a lot in the playoffs and it means a lot because the season is so long," Haworth said. "To have a pennant for next year would be really nice.

"But we can't just look at the Flyers, or even at the Islanders. We've been caught so many times, by Detroit and Toronto and Pittsburgh. We have to look at each game, one by one. We were 12 points behind, now it's one, and we can't take anyone lightly.

"We have to win every game. We'll think about Philly the day before we play them. We won't talk about them weeks ahead."

The talk for much of the season, while Haworth centered Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin, was how much those two players were contributing to his sudden success. A recent shuffle, however, has put Haworth between Jorgen Pettersson and Mike Gartner, and it is apparent that he has helped them, not the other way around.

In five games under the new alignment, the skidding Gartner has righted himself with four goals, four assists and a plus-six rating. Pettersson, who had struggled since coming here in December, has contributed two goals, two assists and a plus-four rating. Haworth has kept rolling right along -- three goals, three assists, plus-six.

"Alan's effort has been excellent, especially his willingness to grab the puck and do things, to hold it and make a play," said Coach Bryan Murray. "He doesn't use his right wing as much as he could, but that will come.

"Going into Winnipeg Oct. 25 , we had a real gap in the middle. Alan had played center a couple of games in the past here, he'd been a center in junior and I knew he liked to play center, so I threw him in. I can't take much credit for it. It was sort of 'Eenie, meenie, minie, mo.' "

It is hard for Haworth to avoid thinking of what might have been if Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman had not consigned him to the wing when he arrived in the NHL in 1980, or if Murray had not kept him there until desperation dictated otherwise. But he is glad to be making a solid contribution to a team in a run for first place and he knows, at age 25, he has some good years ahead of him.

"This could have been a fluke for two weeks, but it's going on five months now, so I think I've proven I can play center and do a good job there," Haworth said. "A lot of guys, if they play well one year, the excuse they give is that they got a lot more ice time. Well, in my case, I think it's fair to say I've been playing the wrong position the last five years.

"But everything is clicking right now, so I'm not going to look back at what happened before. I always expected to score more than 23 or 24 goals and it's a good feeling to hit 30. Not many score 30 in this league. Oh, there are guys who get 40 or 50, but they're superior players.

"I'm looking for consistency, not just trying to get by on a hard shot. I'm trying to skate and move the puck, make good offensive plays and good defensive plays. I'm just as proud of my plus-minus as I am about my 30 goals."

One area where Haworth has worked particularly hard is faceoffs. Sunday, he displayed the result when he outdrew the Rangers'' Ron Greschner in the last minute and fired the puck 115 feet into an empty net to clinch a victory.

"I've improved a whole lot since early on, when I was losing all the faceoffs," Haworth said. "I'm concentrating more, playing more with my head and not just my arms. I've reached the stage where I can outsmart them, instead of them outsmarting me."

With the Capitals idle until they visit the Islanders Saturday, the next big game in the Patrick race is tonight in Philadelphia, where improving Toronto is the visitor. The Maple Leafs won in the Spectrum, 6-3, on Dec. 5.