Dave Christian is on a hot streak, with eight goals in his last eight games. Even more important to the Washington Capitals, his all-around play has returned to the high level of two seasons ago, when he was both the team scoring champion and a leader on the ice.

After bouncing his way through a variety of lines while Coach Bryan Murray sought a winning combination, Christian finds himself back with old pal Bengt Gustafsson, a key figure in Christian's 41-goal campaign in 1985-86.

The third man on the international unit is Michal Pivonka, who collected three points in Friday's 6-2 triumph over the New York Islanders and may finally be part of a productive combination.

"That line played very well, with a lot of creative plays," Murray said. "They've gotten a number of chances, they've scored a few goals and they seem to be building confidence in each other."

Christian and Murray differ somewhat over Christian's consistency during the first half of the season. But they have no quarrel about Christian's ability to put the puck in the net.

"David is shooting the puck very well," Murray said. "He's had some consistent periods, but not long term and some games he's had trouble being there, as far as his play along the boards and his strength.

"It takes a guy like David playing well for our team to be successful. There's never been any question about his ability to score and check. It's just not been there every night and a lot of it goes hand in hand with team performance."

When it was suggested that Christian's season had matched the roller-coaster showing of the team, he disagreed, saying, "I think I've scored all season and I feel pretty good about my season."

Asked whether the 80-game schedule sometimes becomes tedious, Christian replied, "It gets long and when it goes that far, you do find yourself having ups and downs. You just try to keep them close together, to keep things as even as you can."

The Capitals have enjoyed considerable past success during the regular season, while stumbling in the playoffs. There is reason to believe some players have set their sights on April as a time to recoup and Christian said, "I think that's so. At times you start thinking about the playoffs, because our finishes have been disappointing and it's in back of everybody's mind.

"We want the opportunity to change that, but now we have to concentrate on what we're doing. We can't think ahead about the playoffs or there might be no playoff spot."

The Calgary Flames, a team with no concern about qualifying for the playoffs, bring the NHL's best record (34-17-6) to sold-out Capital Centre this afternoon. Christian has scored four goals in two games against the Flames, including his first hat trick as a Capital, but Calgary nonetheless has won both.

"They play well on the road," Christian said. "With the style they play, they don't take a lot of chances and it's generally not an exciting game, because they're not trying to put on any kind of a show. But they do have people who can score, so you can't get away from your game plan."

Murray said, "Calgary is an excellent hockey club with a lot of talent and a lot of balance. They play a patient game on the road, they have size and they work the corners. We have to play our best hockey if we're going to take it to them."

The Capitals were loose at practice yesterday, as befits a team coming off two important victories. There were a lot of laughs, but none that matched one at Murray's expense during the postgame press conference Friday.

Murray talked about his "European" line, referring to Gustafsson (Swedish), Pivonka (Czech) and Christian (oops). Murray, a Canadian, caught himself, saying, "Well, Christian's an American. Maybe I should refer to them as the three foreigners."

Capitals Notes:

Scott Stevens, who missed yesterday's practice because of a sore throat, was on the ice for all six Washington goals Friday, none by the Islanders . . . After today's game, captain Jim Peplinski of the Flames will fly to Calgary and join the Canadian Olympic team for the duration of the Games . . . The Capitals visited Children's Hospital yesterday . . . Friday night, as part of the Last Gift program, one ill youngster attended the Capitals' game and was brought to the dressing room afterward to meet his hero, Larry Murphy.