LAKE PLACID, N.Y., SEPT. 30 -- Three seasons have passed since Rod Langway earned his second straight Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the National Hockey League.

In May, a couple of weeks after the Washington Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Langway marked his 30th birthday.

That combination of events has led a number of hockey people to conclude that Langway is in the twilight of his career, headed downhill along with a team that never fulfilled its potential for greatness.

Langway, entering his 10th National Hockey League season, is aware of the talk. It affects him about as much as the criticism that he ought to wear a helmet.

"I feel great, and I expect to play three to six more years," Langway said today. "I'd like to play 15 years in this league. If I start playing bad and not contributing the way I should, I'll think retirement. I won't stay in the game for the money. But I think my skills and my hockey talent are just as good as ever. I can play with anybody; I think I proved that in the Canada Cup."

Langway also proved it in Rendez-Vous 87, with a remarkable performance against the swift Soviets. In the recent Canada Cup, he again played excellent hockey for a United States team that was anyone's equal defensively.

Langway's critics whisper that he has slowed down, lost a step and his ability to fend off high-speed forwards. Langway readily admits he is having a tougher time today, but he has a different explanation.

"The game is faster than it was five years ago," Langway said. "I didn't lose a step. Everybody else gained a step. Five years ago you were up against Ken Houston's speed. Now it's Mark Messier's speed and there's a big difference. It's hard to imagine the Canadian team had eight guys as fast as Garts {Mike Gartner, the swiftest Capital}.

"As a defenseman, I have to play the angles differently now. But I can skate backward as fast as some guys can skate forward and skating backward is the big part of my job."

Asked if he felt Langway was still a standout, Coach Bryan Murray replied, "Absolutely." Then he added, "I feel strongly that Rod is a top player in this league. He moves the puck well and he doesn't get in trouble defensively. He's just what you're looking for, even before you take everything else into consideration.

"A big part of his leadership is his work ethic. He gets great respect when he says something. Two days after playing with the USA {in the Canada Cup}, he was on the bike for half an hour and on the ice for an hour and a half. The young kids see this and what an example it is."

Langway, who earned a Stanley Cup ring in Montreal in 1979, has been as disappointed as any of his teammates over Washington's failure to advance farther in the playoffs, or top the Patrick Division regular season standings. However, he says that will change; this will be the Capitals' year.

"This is the best team we've had," Langway said. "I believe we have a chance to get 100 points and as good a chance to be first as ever. Two years ago, we had 107 points and went to the last day, but I think we're better now.

"Hatch {Kevin Hatcher} is coming off a good Canada Cup and should have a great year. Scotty {Stevens} and Murph {Larry Murphy} really played well together last year -- they were our best pair -- and should be even better.

"We have two solid goaltenders, Gus {Bengt Gustafsson} is back and Hunts {Dale Hunter} is coming in. He's a guy you hate to play against but love to have on your team, a guy who does all the little things right and always gives 100 percent. Then we've also got Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley for the whole season. That's a big plus for us."

Langway still feels the disappointment of that four-overtime loss to the Islanders in April, but he credits General Manager David Poile and Murray for not overreacting.

"When we lost to the Rangers {in 1986}, they were saying that they had to change the team, and everybody including myself was worried about being traded," Langway said.

"This time they said there would be a few changes and there were, partly because of Bob {Mason}, which was out of their hands. We'll miss Gaets {Gaetan Duchesne}, but we got two great players {Hunter and Clint Malarchuk}."

Langway, however, knows that no matter what level the Capitals reach during the regular season, they must overcome the stigma of past playoff failures to earn recognition around the NHL.

"It's only September, but we have to be thinking a little bit about April," Langway said. "We have to get playoff clout. Everybody is going to be looking to see what we do in the playoffs.

"When the pressure comes on and injuries come about, you never know what will happen. But it's about time it started happening for us."

Capitals Notes: In tests today at the Olympic Center, Gartner was timed in 36.6 seconds for the 300-yard shuttle -- three full laps from a point near one goal line, circling a point near the other. His closest competition came from Stevens, 38.2, and Gustafsson, 38.3. Each player, after a two-minute rest, repeated the circuit and Murray said the times were only slightly slower in virtually every case. "To have only a tenth of a second difference is a sign of good conditioning," Murray said . . . The players tested were those who arrived after Canada Cup play. The others, none of whom came close to today's top three, were tested at Mount Vernon.