The Washington Capitals were trailing Carolina by a goal early in the third period Sunday night when winger Steve Konowalchuk made the kind of contribution he has been making all season.

Konowalchuk fought through a backchecking forward and began pestering two defensemen behind the net. He dug for the puck, grasping the boards for leverage. Then he began kicking at the puck while four sets of hands mauled him, and shoved off hard to the right, then back to the left, freeing himself and getting the puck back to the blue line.

That alone would have been the kind of momentum-altering shift that fuels teams and changes games. But Konowalchuk kept hustling, driving around the goal to the front of the net and drawing a high stick from defenseman Glen Wesley that gave the Capitals a crucial power play. After heading to the bench for a quick drink, he came back to take a face-off in Carolina's zone.

As the Capitals have struggled early this season, Konowalchuk has been the team's most complete player.

"He's one of those guys everyone on the team wants to play with," assistant coach Tim Army said. "That in itself tells you the type of player and type of team person he is. He's had a great effect on our team because of a number of things he does that are all the result of hard work.

"He adds so much to our hockey team in so many different ways. He's such a team guy. He just cares about winning. He's such a positive influence on our bench, on our mood. Totally unselfish. And on top of that he can do things offensively. He's a great example to show you what hard work does in the long run."

Konowalchuk, who turns 27 Thursday, is third on the team with four goals and 10 points in 13 games, on pace to shatter his career-best 45 points (1995-96). He leads the team with a plus-minus rating of plus-5 and is the catalyst for the team's top line with center Jan Bulis and right wing Richard Zednik. His work ethic has rubbed off on the youngsters, helping improve their consistency and play away from the puck at both ends of the ice. In turn, their skill level has helped raise his game.

The line didn't score Sunday, but began the third period with a strong shift, pinning the Hurricanes deep and sparking Washington's bench. The next line out scored, pulling Washington within 3-2, which remained the final score.

"Great shift, great pressure," Army said. "That line goes out and softens the underbelly and the next line capitalizes on their work and we basically dominate the rest of the period."

The converted center, whom injuries limited to 45 games last season, plays much bigger than his size--generously listed as 6 feet 2, 210 pounds. He is the only true crash-and-bang power forward the team has--a commodity they will try to build through the draft--and is an aggressive forechecker, winning battles with his strength and tenacity. He blocks shots, kills penalties, makes a hard hit, absorbs a hard hit to make a play, chips the puck coolly to clear the zone, draws penalties and keeps loose pucks alive in the crease.

"He's a coach's dream," Coach Ron Wilson said. "He's back to the form he was at a couple of years ago that led to him being put on the [U.S.] World Cup team. It's the first time he's been healthy in a couple of seasons and he's obviously going to have a great, great year."

But for Konowalchuk, that means team success, not just individual success. He has been unable to fully enjoy his strong start given the Capitals' 4-7-2 record.

"It's hard to always feel good about yourself when the team is where it is," Konowalchuk said. "You always feel like you could do more--keep one more goal out of the net or get one more goal. But you also have to look at some of the positives for yourself and the team."

CAPITALS PREVIEW

Game: vs. Tampa Bay Lightning.

Where: MCI Center.

When: Tonight, 7 p.m.

Tickets: available.

Records: Capitals, 4-7-2, 10 points; Lightning, 5-7-1, 12 points.

TV: HTS.

Radio: WTEM-980.

Probable goalies: Washington -- Olaf Kolzig (4-6-2, 3.22). Tampa Bay -- Dan Cloutier (3-4-0, 3.17).

Injuries: Washington -- LW Yogi Svejkovsky (shoulder) is out, D Joe Reekie (foot) is doubtful. Tampa Bay -- LW Andreas Johansson (foot) is out, D Andrei Zyuzin (shoulder) is doubtful.