Jeff Toms came to the Washington Capitals' training camp a month ago with no assurances. The right wing spent much of the past two seasons with the Capitals, but many doubted he would return after spotty showings and with an influx of new forwards in Washington. And even if he somehow made the team, few expected him to get much playing time.

Thus far, Toms has exceeded expectations. He was one of the most productive forwards in the preseason and made the season-opening roster. Tonight, that effort will be rewarded with a spot on the third line with Andrei Nikolishin and James Black. His aim is to be there every night, but if he lets up at all, that won't happen. And he might never get another chance.

"Most definitely, this is a big year for me," Toms said. "I just turned 25 and I want to take my hockey career in the right direction. I don't want to be sitting home 10 years from now saying, 'Maybe I should have worked harder.'

"I really wanted to make the team and the next step is earning some ice time. And as of right now, I want to play 81 games. I sat out the first one and I want to play in the rest of the games this season."

Toms recommitted himself to a strength and conditioning routine this summer. His rare combination of size (6 feet 5, 213 pounds) and blazing speed already makes him a commodity in the NHL, but the team felt he needed to bulk up to be more effective in one-on-one battles in the corners and along the boards.

In the past his workouts would center on what Toms refers to as "beach muscles"--chest, stomach, arms. But he hired a personal trainer over the summer and spent more time with Washington's strength and conditioning coach, Frank Costello, working on his lower body and torso--muscles more integral to his skating stride and ability to plow through defensemen.

"I noticed a big difference throughout the summer, and especially when we went on the ice for the first time at camp," Toms said. "I felt a lot stronger than I've ever felt on the ice. Before, when I got held up I wouldn't have the power to skate through a check. This year, when a guy gets a stick on me or something, I feel strong and confident enough to skate through it and get to the net. I can really feel it out there. I know I'm in the best shape of my life."

Last season was basically a wash. A contract dispute kept him out of the first week of camp, he pushed too hard to catch up with everyone else and ended up breaking down after a fast start. He was sent to the minors for 20 games, and came back strong in December, missed 30 games with an abdominal injury, and played the final month of the season. He ended up with one goal and six points in 21 games with the Capitals and a long summer to think about where his career was going.

Beginning tonight, he has a chance to show what he can do against top competition in games that really matter. Toms passed players such as Ulf Dahlen, who was signed from Sweden this summer to bolster the offense, because of superior conditioning, but he will battle with a handful of players for ice time all season. He won't be expected to score a ton of points, but as long as he works hard, skates hard, remains consistent and gives a strong effort defensively, he'll have a shot to stay in the lineup.

"With the way he's played he deserves to be in there," Coach Ron Wilson said. "He's got a great move to his backhand and he cuts in the defense and he's got incredible speed and this year he seems to have much better stamina.

"Last year he'd go hard for 20 seconds and then it looked like he'd hit a wall. This year he's in great shape, so hats off to him for working hard. We'll see what he can do."

Capitals Note: The Capitals re-signed veteran defenseman Joe Reekie to a three-year, $4.4 million contract. Reekie, 34, has one assist and two penalty minutes in one game this season. He'll make $1.4 million this year and $1.5 million in each of the following two seasons, the team said. The 6-3, 220-pound Reekie has 21 goals, 118 assists and 1,132 penalty minutes in 715 career National Hockey League games with Washington, Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders and Buffalo since the 1985-86 season. . . .

NHL sources said the Capitals are shopping defenseman Dmitri Mironov, but a trade seems unlikely given Mironov's contract (three years left at $8.75 million), inconsistent play and the fact he's coming off back surgery. However, one NHL front office member said Montreal expressed interest in Mironov recently and a deal is not out of the question.

CAPTION: TOMS