It's easy to take Peter Bondra for granted. When the Washington Capitals right winger scores, well, he's supposed to score. And when he falters a bit, as he did last season when he slipped from 52 to 31 goals, skeptics surface.

The 31-year-old is still one of the best-kept secrets in the NHL despite being one of the top scorers this decade. This season he is among the league leaders with eight goals through nine games, accounting for over one-third of the struggling Capitals' scoring. He's done it with a bunch of centers and wingers; he's done it on the power play; he's done it while short-handed.

It took Bondra until Thanksgiving last season--19 games--to score eight times.

He leads the Capitals in goals, points (nine), power-play goals (three), short-handed goals (two) and is tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (one). But for all the individual success, Bondra isn't smiling much. While he's been thriving, his team is in a downward spiral. After tonight's 2-1 loss to San Jose it is winless in five games and is in the basement of the Southeast Division, below Tampa Bay and expansion Atlanta.

"It's not how many goals you have, it's how many wins you have," Bondra said. "When you have a 50-goal season and don't make the playoffs, you feel guilty. Something is wrong. I learned a few years ago when everybody is playing well and you have a great season you can end up in the Stanley Cup finals.

"It's not about how many goals you score; it's how many games you win. And if you are a goal scorer you want to score big goals when the team needs it, not just have goals whenever. You want to come through when it counts."

That hasn't been a problem for Bondra this season. Six of his eight goals have either tied the game or given the Capitals the lead. The others were just as important: Bondra scored early in the third period in the home opener against Los Angeles, keying a two-goal rally, and pulled the Capitals to 3-1 by scoring on the power play in the opening minutes of the second period Friday at Anaheim.

He iced a win over Philadelphia by capping a hat trick with two goals in the final minutes. In each of the last three games he has opened Washington's scoring, twice doing it with unassisted short-handed goals, snapping a string of six straight games in which the opposition scored first.

"That's what we want from Peter," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Peter is scoring and not costing us defensively. It's not like he has to score two goals to come out of a game even. Peter is doing his job.

"He's doing a very good job killing penalties, forechecking diligently. He's done everything we ask him to do. We're moving him around and the people he plays with play better, which is a very positive sign."

Wilson has reunited center Adam Oates with Bondra for that reason. Oates still is struggling to pick up points and began the season skating with Bondra, although the two did not really click. Youngster Jan Bulis has been the team's most prolific center, and the Capitals want to establish two potent offensive lines. Problem is, there's only one Bondra to go around.