The mantra has not changed in the three years since the Washington Capitals acquired Chris Simon from Colorado. Before each season he is tabbed as a potential breakout player--one of the fiercest fighters in the NHL who also can use his hands to put the puck in the net. Before each season the team stresses how important it is to keep the 6-foot-4, 235-pound powerhouse healthy.

But the 27-year-old has yet to play anything close to a full season for the Capitals. Simon reported to training camp in great shape and was a standout during the first week of practice. So, naturally, hopes are high again. Simon likely will open the season on what should be a much-improved fourth line.

Free agent winger Joe Sacco will add speed to the unit and, for now, swift rookie Jeff Halpern is centering the line. The trio buzzed throughout the last two days of scrimmages and clicked for two goals yesterday--one from Simon and one from Halpern.

"There's a lot of speed on that line, and Chris Simon has a lot more skill than some people understand," Coach Ron Wilson said. "It's big to get him playing with some fast guys, because it's forcing him to up his tempo as well. That will be good for him going into the season. That has the makings of a very good fourth line--they can skate, forecheck and create some turnovers in the neutral zone and take advantage of them."

Simon probably has the best scoring touch of the trio. He has played just 93 games over three seasons in Washington, scoring 19 goals and 49 points. The trick is to keep him healthy.

Last season shoulder surgery limited him to 23 games, but those problems stem from the Capitals' 1998 Stanley Cup run, when Simon rushed back from severe shoulder problems to help the team's push. He ended up re-injuring the shoulder, which continued to hamper him last season. Maybe returning early wasn't the best career move, but it showed a lot to his coaches and teammates.

"Last year we were hiding a lot of stuff with Si," Wilson said. "Last year people would come in and ask how Chris Simon was doing, and he's got both shoulders popping out and I'm telling everyone that it's not that bad. You try to fake your way through it, and that's not the case anymore with Si. He's basically 100 percent fit and that's a real positive for him. He can go out there and do the things he needs to do. . . .

"Anybody who doesn't know the situation, they can say whatever they want about Si. But I have 100 percent faith in him because of what he sacrificed two years ago."

Capitals Notes: Alexander Volchkov, the fourth overall pick in 1996 and a disappointment in two minor league seasons, displayed some of his skill by scoring two nifty goals yesterday. For now, he is slated for another season in Portland. . . .

The Capitals are spending the last five minutes of their scrimmages playing four-on-four to prepare for the league's new overtime format. . . . Minor league free agent Glen Metropolit, vying for one of the final forward spots, looked good again and picked up a goal.

PRESEASON GAMES

Thursday: Capitals at Philadelphia, 7:35

Friday: Capitals vs. Philadelphia, MCI Center, 7

Saturday: Capitals vs. Nashville in Biloxi, Miss., 8