The Washington Capitals have never been any better this early in a season and Calle Johansson is a big reason why.

The 23-year-old Swedish defenseman is the third-highest scorer on the Capitals, who will try to extend their four-game winning streak tonight at 7:35 in Quebec City.

When Coach Terry Murray spoke with Johansson during the summer, he delivered a message given to many players: Come to camp in good shape, mentally and physically. But there was some added urgency with Johansson.

"With Scott Stevens leaving, there was a position open and a way to pick up a lot of ice time," Murray said. "He said, 'I won't let you down,' and he's responded very well."

Johansson has three goals and nine assists. His 12 points trail left wing John Druce and defenseman Kevin Hatcher (14 points each).

"I know I can play a lot better than I have until now," Johansson said. "I'm happy that we're winning. As far as my own game, I think I could contribute a little more, both defensively and offensively."

Stevens's departure for St. Louis left a void: He had 40 points in 56 games. The on-ice debate was whether the Capitals would have enough offense from the defense. Johansson had the chance to prove himself, and if he didn't fill a large segment of that scoring gap, a trade would have been essential. The hope is that Soviet defensemen Mikhail Tatarinov will fill the rest.

"I was ready to play this season, but just because Stevens is gone, it doesn't make me that good," Johansson said. "I've got to accomplish something. I can't just expect to play because he is gone."

Last season Johansson was considered an offense-oriented player on a defense-oriented team. That meant he saw a lot of time on the power play, but less than most others (Hatcher, Stevens, Bob Rouse and Rod Langway) at even strength and almost none when the Capitals were killing penalties.

Johansson isn't thrilled with that label.

"When I played in Buffalo, I wasn't just on the power play," Johansson said. "I played on the penalty-killing team and even more so in Sweden. There, power play wasn't my specialty. We had other guys who did that. I'm not 'The Point Man' everybody seems to talk about. It's not the only thing I've done."

Buffalo used its 1985 pick (14th overall) to choose Johansson. He played two seasons for Bjorkloven while fulfilling military obligations. Like the Capitals, the Sabres wanted him to shoot or use his speed and stick-handling abilities to generate shots for others. His first NHL season was 1987-88, and he scored four goals and recorded 38 assists (still a career high). Johansson led the Sabres in plus-minus rating, and though that statistic can be misleading, it lends some credence to his claim of being an all-around player.

On March 6, 1989, the Capitals sent goalie Clint Malarchuk and defenseman Grant Ledyard to Buffalo for Johansson and a second-round pick. Last season, his first full one as a Capital, Johansson had eight goals and 31 assists in 70 games.

Rouse often was paired with Stevens and now with Johansson. "We trust each other pretty well," Johansson said.

"I've always been paired with offensive defensemen," Rouse said. "I played with Craig Hartsburg in Minnesota and last year with Scott Stevens. I realize they are the ones that are likely to jump up in the play. I think we complement each other pretty well."