LAKE PLACID, N.Y., SEPT. 11 -- John Druce was a phenomenon of the first order last spring and, as he heads into the 1990-91 season his task is clear, if not simple: Prove his goal-scoring binge in the NHL playoffs was not just a fleeting brush with fame.

"When it was all over, I had a chance to sit back and think," Druce said of the 14 goals that helped the Washington Capitals reach the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time. "I realized that I had done something. I had opened a door for myself and created an opportunity to become a successful NHL player."

There was little reason to suspect Druce would be the Capitals' star in the playoffs, not after eight goals and three assists in 45 regular season games. And even though he scored three times in Washington's first-round victory over New Jersey, his performance was overshadowed by Dino Ciccarelli's eight goals and three assists.

But just as Ciccarelli was leaving the playoffs with a sprained knee, Druce was stepping forward to claim a piece of playoff history.

In Game 2 of the Patrick Division finals against the Rangers, Ciccarelli collided with New York's Kris King and never returned. But Druce, who had scored his fourth playoff goal in a 7-3 loss in Game 1, posted a hat trick as the Capitals won the first of four straight from the Rangers. Druce finished the series with nine goals, and added two against Boston in the Wales Conference finals.

Druce does not pretend he knew all along it would happen that way.

"To do something like that was a little outrageous," Druce said. "I thought about it, but why knock it?"

Druce's life did not change dramatically because of his performance. No big financial bonus was forthcoming, and Druce has a year and an option left on a contract that paid him $105,000 last season.

"I didn't buy anything," he said with a laugh. But folks in Peterborough, Ontario, certainly knew they had a homegrown hero.

"There were a few people that recognized me who hadn't seemed to pay attention to me before," Druce said. "But 90 percent of them were people I knew and they were sincere in their congratulations. It was nice to get their feedback."

The biggest changes involve Druce's confidence and the approach the Capitals are taking.

"Confidence is something a player has to get when he comes into the NHL," Druce said. "It takes a while. . . . For a person like me, who, maybe, has been hesitant, hasn't made a secure spot for himself and been up and down, that is a hard thing to gain. Right now, my confidence is definitely up."

Druce had a so-so training camp in 1989 and spent the first half of the season in Baltimore. A year later, the Skipjacks are not in the picture.

"He established himself as a regular and he will play on a top line," Coach Terry Murray said. "The ice time will be there and he'll be in there in special situations, meaning penalty killing and power plays. The ball's in his court."

Druce was right wing on the fourth line last spring when Murray moved him to John Tucker's spot alongside center Dale Hunter.

"Dale was incredible," Druce said.

There were almost no sure line combinations after today's third practice of traning camp, but Druce and Hunter will stay together.

"Mentally, John knows this is a guy he had success with," Murray said before the start of camp. "I want to let that on-ice relationship develop."

Different players score in different ways. Druce, much like Ciccarelli, scored his goals close to the net, in traffic and out of scrambles. Unlike the Devils and Rangers, the Bruins stymied the Capitals by clearing the puck after goalie Andy Moog made the first stop, thereby avoiding second and third attempts.

Druce doesn't pretend to have found a Brett Hull slap shot over the summer. At 6 feet 1, 200 pounds, he will be able to take some of the punishment that is inflicted in tight.

"I want to keep the same frame of mind, in the sense of working hard and doing the same things I did to score," Druce said. "I want to create a consistent style of play."

Druce, 24, always has been a defensive player first. Before he became a playoff scoring hero, he was a regular on the penalty-killing unit. He must still master the art of transition.

"I have to consciously drive to the net when the puck is in the offensive zone and not think defense until the other team has the puck," Druce said.

So far, Murray said he is happy with what he's seen. "He's hungry and wants to maintain the level of success he had," the coach said.

"Before, I was back in the shadow, watching players like Scott Stevens, Dino, Mike Ridley, Kelly Miller pull more of the weight," Druce said. "Now, I can contribute. That's the door open to me. I know I'm going to get the chance to play and that makes me feel good.

"What happened in the playoffs was that I got a chance to play and the confidence came. At this level, I don't know what the percentage is, but so much of the game is mental."

Opponents this year will have to plan for Druce, but there also will be a fair amount of external pressure. There are 20 other NHL cities with fans and reporters asking the same question: How many goals will Druce score?

"It goes with the territory," Murray said.

General Manager David Poile hates the question, although he knows everyone in hockey is asking it. Still, he did not want to offer a guess on whether Druce would get 30 goals. Murray would be happy with anything in the 25 to 35 range.

"Everybody would like to score 50 goals," Druce said. "It's another thing to go out and do it."

Surely, 30 would qualify him as a success this season. But Druce doesn't want to rope himself in. "I don't want to put the added pressure on myself," he said. "I want to get as many as I can. I'm not going to be happy with 30 if I could have gotten 50."

The people closest to Druce -- his wife, Chantel, his uncle, Roy, and a friend, Ken Montgomery -- were impressed, but urged him to build on the success. He intends to try.

"It made me realize how much fun the game can be," Druce said. "The potential and excitement. Not many people can do that and I want to take advantage of it while I can."