When the Washington Capitals obtained goaltender Clint Malarchuk from Quebec in June, Coach Bryan Murray was not sure what he was getting.

Certainly, Murray never expected a player who quacks like a duck in practice and leads the laughter in the dressing room. Nor did he figure that his new man would be so quick in the net.

The Capitals are laughing a lot these days, as befits a team with a four-game winning streak and first-place status in the National Hockey League's toughest division. But nobody is laughing as much as Malarchuk, whose 5-1 record and 2.67 goals-against mark puts him among the NHL leaders.

With 73 games to go before the Stanley Cup playoffs resolve the Capitals' destiny, Murray is showing no tendency to laugh. But he is enjoying the fast start heretofore unknown in Washington and he is learning that Malarchuk is an excellent goaltender.

"I didn't know what to expect from Clint," Murray said. "I knew he was a good goaltender and a real competitor who was technically very sound. But he is also a very quick reactionary goaltender and he is better in that department than I thought.

"He seems to make the big stop when you need it. Last night {in a 4-1 victory in Philadelphia}, he made a couple of quality plays with the game on the line. We had good solid goaltenders before in Pete Peeters and Bob Mason, but Malarchuk has come in and been steady in the first month and there have been years when we didn't get that."

Malarchuk will be in goal tonight when Montreal visits Capital Centre at 7:35. He has played all but one game.

"We need to get Pete {Peeters} some work, but Clint deserves to play," Murray said. "He's done everything we've asked of him and he's worked very, very hard in practice."

Malarchuk keeps his job in perspective.

"There's pressure on a goalie every time you step on the ice," Malarchuk said. "To counteract it, you have to have an inner sense of humor. When I'm playing, I'm very, very serious. When I'm not, I have a good time.

"I joke a lot and I like clowning around. I like to be around the guys and I like the camaraderie."

Malarchuk has fit in well with his new teammates, persuading several to copy his crew cut. They enjoy some laughs at his expense, too, as occurred in the postgame television interview Thursday, when they chanted "Clint, Clint," while he was trying to keep a straight face on the air.

The one time Malarchuk lost his composure on the ice was in the first half of the home opener against Chicago. He yielded two early goals and obviously was scrambling in the net.

"The first period, I was really nervous," Malarchuk said. "I put too much emphasis on the home opener. You can build things bigger than they are and that's what I did. I was the new kid on the block, I wanted to impress and I was trying to do too much.

"But I brought myself back and settled down the last half of the game. I felt good and comfortable and that's the way I've been ever since. I feel part of the team now and I don't think about the rest of it."

Malarchuk is unconcerned about playing every night, since he went for almost two months without relief last season in Quebec.

"I was hot and Michel Bergeron was superstitious about that, so he kept me in there," Malarchuk said. "But in the playoffs, that worked against me, because I lost my first game and then Goose {Mario Gosselin} won his first and that's how it went."

As a veteran of the Quebec-Montreal rivalry, Malarchuk was unfazed by Thursday's visit to the Spectrum. But he credited his defensemen for keeping him that way.

"The Flyers run you pretty hard and they like to jam the net," Malarchuk said. "Sometimes, they're in so close you can hardly move. But our defensemen are big and strong and they did a good job clearing it out for me."

Capitals Notes:

Defenseman Scott Stevens, right wing Mike Gartner and left wing Greg Adams missed yesterday's practice because of minor aches and pains. All are expected to play tonight.