Considering all the side effects generated by the Washington Capitals' stumbling start, the team has passed the midpoint of the season in remarkably good shape.

By shutting out Edmonton Saturday, the Capitals climbed above .500 at 18-17-5 and they are tied for third place in the Patrick Division, two points from the lead.

Contrast that to Washington's situation after 40 games a year ago -- six games under .500 at 14-20-6 and the NHL's only sixth-place team, 20 points behind pace-setting Philadelphia.

The primary reasons for the improvement are a tighter defense and the swift start of the team's premier player, Mike Gartner.

Defensively, the Capitals have chopped 33 goals from last year's figure. They have permitted only 122 for a 3.05 average, just behind Montreal's league-leading 3.00.

Although the goaltending and defensive corps have been solid, the stronger overall defense is largely the result of the four forwards who were not around during the first half of last season -- Bengt Gustafsson, Dale Hunter, Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley.

Gartner suffered through a horrible first half a year ago, recording 10 goals, 15 assists and a minus-12 rating. His current numbers are 23, 16 and plus-6.

There are negatives in the comparison. Forwards Greg Adams, Craig Laughlin, Bob Gould, Michal Pivonka and Lou Franceschetti have not approached last season's contributions.

Adams, who has fallen from 27 points to 11, and Laughlin, down from 26 to 7, paid the price for the trade of center Alan Haworth to Quebec. Gould, off from 25 points to five, misses his former checking-line mate, Gaetan Duchesne, who departed in the same deal.

Defenseman Larry Murphy has fewer goals (13 to 5), more assists (23 to 30) and overall was not playing up to his potential until a day off in Toronto Monday seemed to jolt him out of lethargy.

Of course, the whole team was lethargic through November and much of December, until General Manager David Poile's "reevaluation" ultimatum helped to get things moving.

Over the last nine games, since the 6-1 disaster in Detroit the day Poile issued his statement of dissatisfaction, the Capitals have a 5-1-3 record while permitting only 19 goals. The lone defeat was by a 3-2 score to the Flyers, who happen to be Washington's next opponent, Tuesday at the Spectrum.

That is one of 22 divisional games over the second half of the season and certainly the outcome of those contests largely will determine where the Capitals will finish. If they are only two points out of first, they also stand just two points ahead of fifth-place Pittsburgh.

"As bad as we played for such a long stretch, we're still right there," said Coach Bryan Murray. "This is going to be a very difficult division, with six teams in contention through most of the schedule. The players have to know it will take consistent play to be successful."

Murray holds no illusions about the ability of his offense to blow out teams. Of the Capitals' 40 games, 17 were decided by one goal (7-10), six more were affected by empty-net scores (2-4) and five wound up tied. So only 12 were decided before the closing seconds.

"I guess we're always going to face one-goal hockey games," Murray said, managing a rare smile. "I'm accustomed to it, because we do that every night. My hair's going gray. But at least against Edmonton, I felt good going into the third period."

Gartner cited the importance of getting out in front for a team that depends so heavily on disciplined, defense-oriented play.

"The first 30 games we were playing catch-up hockey," Gartner said. "That's not our style. It breaks our defensive mold. There's not a heck of a lot of difference in the way we've played the last couple of weeks and the way we played earlier. But it doesn't take a lot to get over the hump and it doesn't take a lot to get under the hump."

The Capitals, for all their recent success, are not over the hump yet.