He's back. Collaborating, reassuring, cajoling, leading, Rod Langway is back on the ice. Even with an ailing lower back, he has new life and so do the Washington Capitals.

"He mentally prepares the team to play the game," wing Craig Laughlin said of the team's captain. "He gets excited in the dressing room. We don't have a lot of guys who really get pumped up in the dressing room. He's the type of guy who can pump up the guys. By yelling, screaming, by doing whatever you want.

"On the ice, it's his presence out there -- everybody feels comfortable when he's on the ice. Everybody knows he's going to make some big plays for us -- he's going to block a shot, he's going to be a big part of our penalty-killing, he's going to do something."

So it was last week in Toronto. Accelerating into the offense, Langway passed to Mike Gartner outside the blue line, crossed the line and skated free. Taking a return pass, and shrewdly taking advantage of a screen by Kelly Miller, Langway "picked the corner {of the net} and I hit it." Langway had hit the game-tying goal. He was back, all right.

Crucial to the Capitals' goal of winning the Stanley Cup, Langway is the man who "represents everything we are as a team," as General Manager David Poile has put it. Langway works at the game, and will demand effort from non-performers. The cornerstone and soul of the Capitals, Langway, at 30, remains a coach's ideal -- respected and entrenched, he'll still sacrifice his body in games and practice as if he were about to be shipped out to Binghamton. Back after suffering a ruptured disk in his spine Nov. 25, Langway sets the tone for the now hot Capitals.

After a week in the hospital and 14 missed games, more than he missed in his five previous seasons in Washington, the tall defenseman returned Dec. 26 against Philadelphia. With his defense and an assist and a goal two nights later, he was almost looking like the Langway of old instead of an old Langway.

"Before, I couldn't move quick, I couldn't twist around, I couldn't bend down, I couldn't stand straight," Langway said the other day. "I felt like I had 35 pounds of sand on my shoulders all the time. I was hunched over like an old man."

Now, his problem is not so much the pain as the uncertainty.

"It's not a case of sharp pain like I had before. It's a case of stiffness and being inactive so long. Right now, after games and after practices, it gets stiff and it's sore. It's not painful, it's not like it was.

"I can move and I can twist and I can shoot the puck as well as I have. But still, at certain times, like after practice and after games, I know it's there.

"If I sit for a half-hour, reading the paper or listening to music, it'll get stiff.

"The doctors say they don't know. They said you could be just in your car. Or I could pick up my kid. I could do it in practice or a game -- it could go again."

Langway's season could come to an end faster than he changes direction on the ice. Or, another chunk of his season could be eaten away. Or, just maybe, he may not miss more time.

How does he cope?

"I just block it out."

He said this while perspiring heavily in the locker room at Mount Vernon after a practice -- a short but hard practice. Langway is not coming back gingerly; after the hour workout, he stayed on the ice as he usually does when he's feeling 100 percent. He stayed an extra 15 minutes, inclined to slide out the rink door only after a resurfacing machine started up with a blast.

"If there's ice, it should be used," Langway likes to say.

"He wants to play all the time," said Laughlin, already showered and dressed. "He wants to win badly. And it's contagious, I guess, the way he plays."

"I think Rod leads through example on the ice, through his hard work," said Gartner, also dressed. "That's the dimension that he adds to our team since he's come back, the hard work that he portrays out there."

Langway hates to miss games. "It's very uncomfortable for me," he said, bending over successfully to unlace his skates. "It's not my nature just to sit and watch guys play, especially since I've been playing so long. I don't enjoy sitting out."

"I think most hockey players believe that you have to play hurt," said Gartner. "A lot of our players have played hurt over the years. That's just a given when you come to hockey players."

Langway once described himself as an "animal on ice." While he skates with grace, make no mistake: he is 6 feet 3, 215 pounds -- and tough. He could have waited longer to come back from his injury; no one would have questioned him. But he wanted to play against the division opponent Flyers Dec. 26. He was thinking ahead, too, trying to get ready for last weekend's back-to-back games, the first time he played on consecutive days in six weeks.

"I'm still not in playing condition," he said. "I can't go out there for a solid minute and 20 seconds and feel healthy for the next shift. That's where I'm lacking right now. But it's coming back a lot faster than I thought."

Getting Langway back "is real important from a leadership point of view -- he's a real holler guy," said Coach Bryan Murray, citing Langway's value in "close games" and in "penalty-killing." His presence provides relief for Scott Stevens' good defensive play; it enabled Murray to sit Larry Murphy out a game. "All I'm concerned about now, and he was too, is his game conditioning," said Murray. "But beyond that, he has not indicated anything other than that he feels pretty good. It's just a matter of working hard and playing hard and he'll be back to 100 percent."

Langway was "a little bit tired" after the second game in two days, Saturday's shutout of Edmonton. But he feels good. His back has not acted up, and Monday he was even out shoveling snow at his house.

"It's something I may have the rest of my life," he said of his back problem. "But there's no pain. I had shooting pain before."

In the hospital, medication and therapy loosened his back. Now he does exercises -- and hopes for the best.

"The thing about this, you don't know if it's going to come back. The doctors don't know. That's what scares me -- not scares me, but I know it's always there."

It could go at any time, he said. "The organization knows it. I know it. My family knows it. The doctors know it."

It used to be said that Langway plays each game as if it were his last. Now he really does. Yet he sounds as if he'll be around a while.

"We know it's going to come down to the stretch," he said. "The end of February and all of March are going to be the telling part of our season. Right now, all the teams are bunched together, and this week is as important as last week because we have two division games," the second being Friday against the Rangers.

He wanted to come back quickly, at first "trying not to hurt the team more than anything," and then "maybe just giving some of the other players some confidence that I'm on the ice. They know that I can get the puck out of trouble and play strong."

And that's exactly what he's been doing in recent Capitals victories, close games with little margin for error, the kind that call for a Langway. Stopping opponents' rushes, starting plays, steadying teammates, showing up to quell trouble. When Langway stirs, the Capitals can feel the wind at their backs.