Mike Liut always has been driven to succeed, and with talent and intelligence he has often reached his goal. But two months from his 35th birthday, he also is mellowing just a bit.

That's not bad. Liut will still stop more pucks this season than most goalies, including some tonight when the Washington Capitals play the Buffalo Sabres at 7:35 at Capital Centre. But as Vancouver Coach Bob McCammon said, "Liut is a war horse."

And when you get to the war horse stage and haven't taken too many off the mask, the choices are different. After his trade from Hartford in March and a clear signal his contract would be extended for a year, Liut didn't buy a house on the simplest route to Capital Centre.

He and his wife Mary Anne wanted their three children to go a particular Catholic school and be close enough to soak up some of the history that permeates Washington, so they settled in Northern Virginia. There were players in training camp who are closer in age to the oldest of his three children (Jenna, 8; Justin, 5; Blake, 3) than they were to Liut.

"We sort of wanted to be a little closer to the city so the kids could take advantage of the educational environment," said Liut. "And in Hartford, we were living out on a farm."

The Capitals are much better off because of that March 5 trade. Liut helped down the stretch last season and is helping now. And now is especially important because Don Beaupre is out with a groin-muscle pull.

At this stage, Liut isn't the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, but he takes a 7-4-0 record into tonight's game. The Capitals have a five-game winning streak going and, if they beat the Sabres, it's possible Liut would face Boston Sunday night.

Training camp had all sorts of distractions, but Liut was a constant. He arrived in great shape and played consistently well.

"I guess I shouldn't have been surprised because he is a very proud person," Coach Terry Murray said.

Last season, Liut and Montreal's Patrick Roy tied for the best goals-against average in the NHL, 2.53.

"I'm real proud about last year and it worked out very well," Liut said, but added, "Statistics are half-truths."

There are two ugly games on Liut's record this season -- a 7-4 season-opening loss to Pittsburgh and the 9-4 loss in Calgary -- but both were team efforts.

"I think I've played fairly well," Liut said. "There have been a couple wrecks, but you don't wreck like that by yourself. The first game was a tough way to start, but the puck tends to go in on two-on-none breaks. When teams don't give up a lot of breakaways or two-on-ones, the puck stays out of the net almost by itself.

"In Calgary, I would liked to have been a little stronger on a couple of breakaways. Statistics stay with you and can look bad, but you can't worry about that."

Liut's goals-against average is 3.63. Without those two games factored in, he would have a 7-2 record with a 2.59 GAA. Edmonton's Bill Ranford has a 2.97 GAA, but the Oilers are 2-10-2.

"I'd rather be a lot of games over .500 than be .500 with a lower goals-against average," Liut said. "Look at Ranford. He's playing as well as anybody, but he's 2-10. I bet he'd give up a goal a game for a few wins."

In 1978-79, St. Louis veteran Ed Staniowski played more minutes than any other league goalie. The next season, Liut arrived and took over, playing 64 games to just 22 for Staniowski. Liut said Staniowski told him one day that it was the coach that decided who would play and that it served no one's purpose to get mad at each other.

"The friction between goaltenders is one worth serious consideration," Liut said. "You have to get along. He was very supportive of me early in my career."

Nearly a dozen years later, Liut was in the opposite chair as the older player, but still entering new territory. Beaupre's territory.

"I've talked to Donnie about where we are," Liut said. "A goaltender of 28 or 29 {Beaupre} is just entering his best years. There is an ebb and flow to things, and things will work themselves into a pattern. Obviously, at 34 going on 35, it may work out that I will logically play a little less."

Coach Terry Murray said again yesterday that while he may go for a period with the hot goalie, he plans to use both to ensure both are ready for April. Beaupre's goals-against average is a league-best 1.75.

"Nobody's going to lose, lose, lose and keep playing," Liut said. "Donnie's been in the league 10 years and he knows the deal. He's played real well this year and I think things will work out.

"We're both mature enough to understand what happens. The game isn't a one-man show anymore. You don't blow out five or six people to get first place and then have nothing for the playoffs. There's not a lot of joy in Mudville when you're playing every night. That's a lot of pressure."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Kevin Hatcher's agent, Ron Salcer, was in town the past two days to continue negotations with team officials about a new contract.

"We met today and I think I'll talk with him again the first part of next week, if we don't meet again," General Manager David Poile said yesterday afternoon. Asked how far apart the sides are, Poile said: "That is always in the eye of the beholder."

Salcer, Poile and team president Dick Patrick met Thursday afternoon and evening at Patrick's law office in Virginia. There were a couple of phone conversations yesterday, but no meeting as of late in the afternoon.

"I think it's more a question of fine-tuning and wanting to tie up a few loose ends," Patrick said.