The New York Islanders foundered the past two seasons--going through coaches and owners, playing to small crowds, selling off key players--and winger Joe Sacco sank with them. His year and a half on Long Island after a trade from Anaheim was a wash. He managed just three goals, and not a single assist, in 73 games last season, finishing a dismal minus-24.

So it's not surprising that little fanfare followed when the Capitals signed Sacco as a free agent this summer to add speed, penalty-killing experience and grit to their checking line. Virtually unnoticed, Sacco has provided all of that this season, and never more so than during the past two weeks, when the Capitals' play has improved. They've won three of their past four games entering tonight's meeting with the New York Rangers at MCI Center.

"I think I'm finding my niche here," Sacco said. "I kind of lost it last year--not that I ever had a great niche--but I always had a role and last year I kind of lost that halfway through the year. I was kind of scrambling there and I think I'm getting it back now. And you feel good when you win and you can contribute."

Sacco is doing all the little things. He crushed Tampa Bay's Steve Martins with a clean yet devastating body check deep in Washington's zone in Tuesday's 2-1 victory--a hit that brought the Washington bench to life and sparked the Capitals. Earlier in the game, he dropped the gloves with a much bigger Colin Forbes, the second time he's done so this year, and buckled him with a blow to the face.

On most nights, Sacco and Steve Konowalchuk were the only forwards hitting and finishing checks with any regularity. Sacco has been a part of the penalty-killing units that have negated 32 straight power plays after sinking to the bottom of the league. He is creating chances while forechecking deep in the opponent's zone, none more obvious than the turnover he forced from Cory Cross that set up Chris Simon's insurance goal, cementing a 5-3 victory over Toronto last Friday.

"Joe's always been one of my favorites," Coach Ron Wilson said. "I had him for four years in Anaheim and he always played like that, and now he's comfortable here. He's in a situation with two linemates that enable him to play his kind of game. He's a forechecker, he finishes checks and he's a pain in the butt to play against.

"It would be nice if we had three or four more guys with that style of play where they're always finishing checks, and you know when he goes on the ice you're going to have a safe shift and your intensity level is going to pick up."

Sacco's offense has kicked in since he was paired with Simon and center Andrei Nikolishin, and he netted his first goal of the season Sunday in Carolina (eight regulars have yet to score). He is hardly a goal scorer--Sacco hasn't posted more than 13 goals in any of the past five seasons--but the former U.S. Olympian has scored at least 10 goals in every full NHL season prior to last season.

He hopes to ascend to that level again playing for his old coach and a team that is emphasizing speed, an adherence to Wilson's system and a return to the postseason.

"I've enjoyed being back with Ron," Sacco said. "New York was going through a rough transition and it's great to be with a solid organization like the Caps, and I think we'll be a playoff team. I have a role and I'm part of a good team again."

Capitals Notes: Center Jan Bulis has seven goals in 14 games; he notched seven goals last season (38 games). . . . Konowalchuk already has 11 points. He didn't register his 11th point last season until Jan. 7. . . . Defenseman Jamie Huscroft was recalled from Portland. . . . The Capitals haven't allowed a power-play goal in seven games and have allowed just one since Oct. 16, when San Jose scored in the second period of a game at MCI Center.