At 8:30 a.m. on draft day last June, the Washington Capitals learned that free-agent goalie Bob Mason would be joining Chicago. David Poile had to work fast. The Capitals' general manager had been trying to deal with Quebec for center Dale Hunter. Immediately, Poile inquired about the Nordiques' goalies.

"We could move a goaltender," Poile recalls the response from his opposite number, Maurice Filion.

Which one?

Clint Malarchuk.

Poile made his offer: Gaetan Duchesne, Alan Haworth and a No. l draft choice {"I don't like to give up No. l draft choices," said Poile} for Hunter and Malarchuk. Filion was ready to agree; Poile retired to think twice about his own offer.

"We had the 15th pick {in the first round}," said Poile, "and about the 13th pick I went over and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'It's up to you.' I said, 'I'll do it.' "

At home in Calgary, Malarchuk got the news from his slow-pitch softball teammates. A third baseman, he once tried out at a Pittsburgh Pirates camp. "Hey, you got traded," he was told as he showed up at the little park where his team played. Malarchuk quickly replied, "I was born at night, but not last night."

Then he thought twice. "I realized that was the day of the draft, so maybe something happened," said the hottest goaltender in the National Hockey League. He was sitting up in Capital Centre's blue seats yesterday afternoon, watching his former Quebec teammates practice for tonight's game. He couldn't have imagined last June being the toast of the league today, having won six of his last seven games, having reporters lined up to interview him, watching the Quebec club and not being a part of it.

"I phoned home and my mom" -- she's in town this weekend to see her son play -- "told me that David Poile and Maurice Filion had both called. I was excited. I was ecstatic. I just screamed -- I can't remember what -- 'Great' or 'All right' or something. I couldn't believe it."

An Alberta native, born in Grande Prairie, raised in Edmonton, Malarchuk had never been comfortable in French-speaking Quebec. Hunter and he had been "best of friends in Quebec. And to be traded together. He was excited about it, too. We were both in the same situation, being English-speaking players in a French city."

Happy then, Malarchuk is even happier now.

"It seems like you know you're going to stop the puck before they even shoot," he said.

It's hard to say how a goalie can gain such a feeling of confidence, but it's something no goalie wants to think about. Malarchuk doesn't want to do anything that might change his luck; he's like a gambler on a roll, or a hot September pitcher.

"Right now, I'm just playing the game. I'm not really thinking. I'm just going out there and reacting.

"It seems like everything they shoot my way I'm going to stop it, I'm going to touch it, and it's not going to go in the net."

For several days, Malarchuk has been slowed by flu. Both Tuesday and Wednesday nights, he beat New Jersey at less than full strength. Yesterday, he threw up again, after practice. "Nothing left," he said good-naturedly, color returning to his face.

The Capitals feel flush with Malarchuk and Pete Peeters, out with a bruised ankle but playing well before that. The feeling on the Capitals is that they have a good opportunity to go farther than usual in the playoffs. They always feel that way; this time, they may have good reason.

"Any Stanley Cup team that ever won anything always had great goaltending," said Hunter. "We have it here, so we have a shot at it."

Poile calls Malarchuk and Peeters "the best combination of goaltenders" in his six seasons here.

"It gives us a chance to have a good playoff," said Capitals coach Bryan Murray. "If we're going to have any success, that's got to be where it starts."

Murray has 15 games before he has to decide whether Malarchuk or Peeters will start the playoffs, but the coach doesn't expect Malarchuk to cool off between now and then. Malarchuk, in fact, has a record of thriving on work.

Clearly, Malarchuk has won the confidence of teammates. Said defenseman Scott Stevens, "He's made saves that should have been goals."

"He doesn't take a lot of things seriously," said captain and defenseman Rod Langway. "He takes his performance seriously. But he gives a lot of guys the feeling of being comfortable in front of him. He makes the game a little bit more at ease. You know, some goalies are tense when they're on the ice. Clint, you can count on him making a comment during the game that lets you know he's still Clint Malarchuk. He's a character."

He may make a wisecrack at a tense time in the game. Said winger Bob Gould: "He's a lot of the team spirit."

But Malarchuk wasn't always a happy-go-lucky guy. As a youngster, from age 12 to 14, he said he was deeply upset by the marital problems of his parents. He said he suffered depression, anxiety. He understands how difficult times often can be for young people, and likes to talk with them.

"That's probably why I laugh a lot now," he said, "because I think I missed a lot of laughs when I was younger."

Malarchuk believes he has improved significantly this season from working with goalies coach Warren Strelow, who calls Malarchuk and Peeters "two guys who are making my job easy."

"I've become more precise," said Malarchuk. "More confident. Before, I used to do things and I didn't know exactly if I was doing them right or not." His older brother Garth, drafted by the Capitals, had been a goalie. "He used to help me out. We talked goaltending. But not even close to Warren and me talking."

Malarchuk also learned something else this season, from his 4-1 defeat by his old teammates here in November: "Try not to put too much emotion into it. Take it as another game. Deep down, there's that feeling you want to beat them because they're your old team. But you try to keep things in perspective, down to earth."

It's how he'll try to play Quebec tonight. It's how he's been handling his hot streak.

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