Washington Capitals rookie Jeff Halpern feels more like an NHL player every day. He gets a little more comfortable in the dressing room. He looks more confident on the ice. About the only problem now is finding time to do some grocery shopping for his new apartment near the team's Piney Orchard practice facility.

"I've got to start eating better," the 23-year-old Princeton graduate said.

Not exactly the kind of problem he was bracing for once he made an NHL roster. Halpern has played in all 19 games this season, winning over teammates, coaches and management. He doesn't appear headed to the minors any time soon. Although he was never drafted by an NHL team, the Potomac native should be here for quite some time, something few thought possible just a few years ago.

"It's a pretty easy lifestyle to get used to," Halpern said. "Every day is fun. Each day feels more comfortable than the last. But it's a long season to go. I have to keep it up."

Halpern (5 feet 11, 198 pounds) wasn't considered even a marginal prospect until late in his collegiate career. The Capitals invited him to a rookie camp after his strong junior season and several teams wanted to sign him last spring. But Halpern already had made up his mind to play for his hometown team, the club he grew up cheering for.

The Capitals penciled him in as the fourth-line center at the start of training camp and figured he might need a season in the minors. But with a strong preseason, Halpern quickly proved that wouldn't be necessary. He has filled an assortment of roles since, taking shifts with all four lines, playing strong defense, winning key face-offs, killing penalties. The Capitals like his speed and competitive spirit.

"The ingredients you covet so much are there," General Manager George McPhee said. "And he's a guy on the team the rest of the guys like a lot, and it's important to have good people in the [locker] room. I guess the best thing I can say about him right now is unlike a lot of guys who come in out of college or juniors who step in the lineup and start to fade at some point, Jeff seems to be getting better and may be a top player by the end of the season.

"I don't think any of us have any concerns about him. We think he's just going to get better all the time and be a real vital part of this team certainly in the future, and probably in the near future."

On Friday night, Halpern's line may have been Washington's best. He set up James Black's goal with a spinning, backhanded pass and later capped a pretty passing sequence with Black on a two-on-one break, giving the Capitals a lead seconds after Carolina had tied the game. The following night, he got a chance to play with all four lines--center Jan Bulis left the game with a rib injury--and adroitly adjusted his game to fit the varied skill levels and playing styles of his wingers.

Halpern would like to improve his offense (two goals, four points), but that will come since in most games he is asked to focus on checking. He has skated on the left wing with the top line (Adam Oates-Peter Bondra), played on the top power-play unit and been elevated to the top line in crucial third periods, when Coach Ron Wilson uses fewer players.

Many college players, who play much shorter seasons with less travel, have trouble maintaining their play through their rookie seasons. The Capitals hope Halpern is an exception.

"I think we've fed him what he can eat," Wilson said. "And since he's digesting everything, we're giving him a little bit more. There don't seem to be many holes in his game or things he can't grasp.

"I've been around a lot of college guys who burn out at this level and by Christmas time hit a wall. We're managing his ice time early in games and not pushing him too hard. We think he's going to have plenty left in the tank in the second half of the season."