NEW YORK, APRIL 21 -- He could be an emerging star that will sit fixed above the horizon or a comet that will burn hot before fizzling. The galactic and hockey juries are still out on John Druce, but he has been a very bright spot for the Washington Capitals in their Stanley Cup playoff quest.

In 45 regular season games, Druce had eight goals. In eight playoff games, he has seven, including three tonight in the 6-3 victory over the New York Rangers and two game-winners in the series against the New Jersey Devils.

"He's played the best hockey of his professional career," Capitals General Manager David Poile said. "Before the playoffs we talked about the heroes you have to have in the playoffs, and one category of them is somebody you didn't expect to have a significant impact. We were hoping {that person} would come from the new, young group, and John has certainly established himself."

Druce scored the deciding goal in two of the four games the Capitals won in their Patrick Division semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils. After Dino Ciccarelli, whose eight first-round goals were tops in the NHL, Druce was next in line on the Capitals.

In Thursday's 7-3 loss to the Rangers in Game 1 of the division finals, Druce scored his fourth goal as the Capitals rallied in the third period. He had done this while playing mostly on the fourth line. But on Friday, Coach Terry Murray moved Druce into John Tucker's right wing spot on Dale Hunter's line (one of the top two). Druce played there tonight and responded with his first career hat trick.

"I've had four {goals} in the playoffs and every one has been right in the crease," Druce said before the game. "I'm just going to the net. Dino has said more than once that 90 percent of the goals scored in this league are garbage goals. It's just taken me this long to realize that."

Druce is part of this season's youth movement on the Capitals. But that term refers as much to experience as age. Druce, who first played for the Capitals last season, is about six months older than defenseman Kevin Hatcher, who just completed his fifth full season.

"He was drafted as a 19-year-old {a year later than most draftees} and {was} a late bloomer as a junior player and a little bit of a late bloomer as a pro," Poile said.

Druce grew up in Peterborough, Ontario. Linda Druce raised John and his sister, Janice, by herself and has worked for more than 20 years at a General Electric factory in town. With the extra workload, it didn't always allow time for her son.

"She was always there for me when I needed her, but it was tough for her being on her own," Druce said. "She worked a lot and, with me being in hockey, we didn't have a chance to grow up together. I'm a fairly independent person; I like to do things on my own and she let me do that."

Linda's brother, Roy, and her friend, Ken Montgomery, have served as father figures for John. "I looked at him as a father," Druce said of Montgomery.

At times children miss having a father, and at others they don't know enough to know what they are missing. Both were true for Druce: "My uncle was there and it seemed like we were playing road hockey 24 hours a day. I was just a kid and we didn't think about things like that," he said, referring to being without his natural father.

As for his natural father, "I met him when I was 16," Druce said. "He has his own life now, but I have my own life too."

Off the ice, that includes his wife, Chantel, and daughter, Courtney. On the ice, his career has been slow and sometimes frustrating along the way to the NHL.

Druce did not make the Junior A Peterborough Petes until the second year he was eligible.

"When he came back the next year, it seemed like he was on a personal vendetta to make the team," said Capitals teammate Rob Murray, a linemate at Peterborough. That line mainly was used to check and Druce had just 12 goals and 14 assists in his first season. Still, the Capitals made him their second draft pick and the 40th overall.

"What you saw with John was the size {6 feet 1} and skating ability," Poile said.

After two seasons in Peterborough, Druce spent two full seasons with the Capitals' farm team, then in Binghamton. As in the juniors, he scored more the second year.

Druce played 48 games with the Capitals last season, and only 13 with the Baltimore farm team -- an indication that though he was in the NHL, he was there mostly to sit on the bench. In those 48 games, he had eight goals and seven assists. He played in one playoff game. When this season started, he was back in Baltimore.

"I had a poor {training} camp," Druce said. "They wanted more of a presence, the physical game, the hard-nosed, grinding type of stuff. I guess they felt I wasn't doing that."

Druce wasn't happy about being in the minors, but he worked hard and was called up in early December.

"In Baltimore, I was talented enough to be a finesse player and succeed," said Druce, who had 15 goals and 16 assists in 26 games this season with the Skipjacks. "In coming up here, the key was to encompass that whole game."

Athletes often can point to a moment in their careers when they turn the corner and establish themselves in their own minds as professionals. For Druce, that may have been late this season when he scored a key power-play goal as the Capitals clinched a playoff berth against Philadelphia. Since then he has been the "presence" for which the Capitals were looking.

"This year," said Druce, "I feel much more a part of the team. I get much more ice time and I contribute to more aspects of the game -- some penalty killing, the odd power play, and regular shifts."

Capitals Coach Terry Murray, who coached Druce in Baltimore and has been more willing to use him than was his brother, ex-coach Bryan Murray, is particularly pleased with Druce's ascension.

"He's played very well for me," Murray said. "Not only {Thursday} night and in the New Jersey series, but a lot of the time I've been here. I had him in Baltimore and he was one of the players I used a lot. His hockey sense has come a long way."

Poile is hoping the inconsistencies in Druce's professional past are behind him. "Is this the real John Druce?" Poile wondered aloud. "If it is, then he and the Capitals have a very bright future."

Druce knows seven playoff goals do not a star make -- and the minor leagues are still a recent memory.

"I haven't done anything yet to be satisfied," he said. "This is where hockey is fun."