Although anyone who visited Capital Centre to watch hockey for the first time Tuesday night would never believe it, the Washington Capitals are every bit as formidable as their 45-21-5 record would indicate.

If the Capitals occasionally resemble their ne'er-do-well predecessors of 10 years back, as in Tuesday's 5-2 loss to Los Angeles, they more often look like Stanley Cup champion beaters, as in their three-game season sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.

"They have discipline and a lot of assets," said Pat Quinn, the Los Angeles coach, who was delighted to encounter the Capitals on an off night. "There are only a few teams that are Stanley Cup contenders, with an opportunity to win the Cup, and the Capitals are one."

"Washington is an excellent team and they don't beat themselves," said Pittsburgh Coach Bob Berry, whose Penguins have been beaten in 11 of their last 12 meetings with the Capitals.

"That club has no weaknesses at all," said Jacques Demers, the coach of a good St. Louis team that batted zero for three against Washington. "They have everything to offer you. They have good goaltending, good offense, good defense and a great coach, too."

Bryan Murray won't concur wholeheartedly with Demers, but acknowledged yesterday that he agrees with the assessment of his club's defense and goaltending.

"Obviously, we're not good enough to take a night off and still win," Murray said. "But we fit with the top teams in this league and I think we're every bit as good as Edmonton and Philadelphia.

"We have our weak links, but so does everyone else, and there are nights when those guys play pretty well. There are other nights when I can fill them pretty well with other guys. Sure, we could upgrade ourselves at some positions. But every team in this league could use a better forward, a better defenseman or a better goaltender on certain nights."

Murray is encouraged by the Capitals' depth, something that was lacking the last two years.

"We're as deep as most teams in this league," Murray said. "Like most teams, we can't afford to lose a star player. But we can replace anybody else.

"We have seven defensemen plus Timo Blomqvist who can play and we're very deep in goal. The two guys here are doing a good job and Bob Mason is playing very well in Binghamton.

"When Alan Haworth out with a broken wrist returns, we'll have at least three lines that we can be very confident of offensive production.

"Steve Leach, with a little more experience, can fill certain spots, and we have a couple of guys below who can fill in. Yvon Corriveau will be available; he's having a very strong year in junior hockey. And David Jensen has come on down below."

What the Capitals have that nobody else in the NHL can match is the defensive talent of Rod Langway and Scott Stevens.

Despite being hampered by a bruised right leg, Langway has been a dominant force as Washington has won 10 of its last 12. He is plus-16 over the last 24 games and was the No. 1 star three times in one four-game stretch.

Stevens, after a slow start largely attributed to a sore right knee, has become equally dominating. Over the last nine games, he has four goals, six assists and a plus-six rating.

Asked if any other teams had two defensemen of comparable ability, Murray said, "No. I'm prejudiced, of course, but I don't know of any two defensemen who provide the dimension they give us, or the leadership they give us. It's primarily defensive, but it's what we can build around and what we do build around."

Offensively, the Capitals have five players who are enjoying career seasons -- Dave Christian, Bengt Gustafsson, Haworth, Craig Laughlin and Greg Adams.

Mike Gartner is slightly off past figures, while Bob Carpenter has not come close to his 53-goal season of a year ago. If they can lift their play to previous levels and the others do not slip, the Capitals could be a tough opponent for anyone in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"We didn't show up last night, but don't judge this club on one game," Murray said. "Until that one, we'd been playing the system to a T, bumping the puck out of the zone and moving it up quickly, playing safe and sound hockey. I'm confident that's the team you'll see the rest of the way."