When the Washington Capitals' preseason concluded nearly two months ago, forward Ulf Dahlen was not an NHL player. He seemed ill-equipped for the North American game after spending two seasons back in his native Sweden. His speed and conditioning lagged. He could not crack the lineup.

As November began, Dahlen was playing just a few shifts a night on the fourth line, barely touching the ice in the third period. This week, he has been the team's most productive forward. Dahlen ended two periods of frustration last night, leading the Capitals to a 1-0 victory before 13,973. He is playing tenacious hockey along the boards and in front of the goal; he has three goals in two games (his first scores since the 1996-97 season) after failing to score in his first 13.

The Capitals (8-9-4; 6-3-3 at home) already were en route to a 48-shot assault when Dahlen broke the scoreless tie. His bullishness around the crease drew a holding penalty--a power play he ended with a wrist shot through traffic. Dmitri Mironov shot from the point, Adam Oates (12 points in past 11 games) was denied on the rebound and Dahlen stretched for the loose puck as it popped out of the crease. He sent it right back in, 4 minutes 12 seconds into the third period.

"He's now the player that we were expecting when we signed him this summer," General Manager George McPhee said. "It took a little while to get him to where he had to be, but he's doing exactly what we were hoping for."

That was all backup goalie Craig Billington--another largely overlooked summer acquisition--needed. The veteran, acquired from Colorado for $1, made 19 saves earning his second straight shutout (ninth of his career) in his first home start. Billington has not allowed a goal in 135 minutes and has stopped 67 of 69 shots in his three starts this season (0.67 goals-against average).

Last night, Billington had to stay sharp when power yawning was in order. One mistake would be devastating. He was tested on rare occasions; he was a spectator for much of the game. He stopped Ville Pentonen's spinning move, stoned Cliff Ronning on a rush and shut down Sergei Krivokrasov, who blazed in for the rebound. He was strong when Nashville had consecutive power plays to start the second period and broke a sweat in the final minutes as the Predators tried desperately to tie. Other than that, it was a battle of man vs. mind.

"The thing that keeps you most focused is recognizing it's a game of mistakes," Billington said. "It's a blocked shot away from being a breakaway; it's a fallen defenseman away from being a two-on-one. I've seen so much over the years, it doesn't take much for a game to go the other way."

The Capitals, who have earned at least one point in nine straight home games, were the aggressors from the opening faceoff. They unleashed a 21-shot barrage in the first period, their highest total in a period this season; Nashville mustered seven mostly harmless shots. But goalie Tomas Vokoun (0-6-1) was sharp in his first game back after being recalled from the minors.

Dahlen, who scored twice in Wednesday's 5-2 loss, continued to shine on the top line and keyed Washington's attack. He set up teammates from behind the net and pelted Vokoun with slap shots and wrist shots. Steve Konowalchuk and Oates pounced on loose pucks inches from the net. Dahlen was the best player on the ice.

"I've always known he was this good," said defenseman Calle Johansson, Dahlen's lifelong friend. "What he's doing now is what he's always done. He's one of best in the league along the boards.

"He just needed to get into game shape and game situations. It's a different game and tempo in Sweden. Now he's back where he used to be. This is the way he is. He is this good."

Dahlen has scored power-play goals in consecutive games--something the Capitals had not done all month. They enjoyed three power plays in the first period, but their woes only intensified. They are in a 4-34 funk and were booed heartily when they got pass-happy on the man advantage as the first period expired. Washington appeared to take the lead midway through the game, when Chris Simon stiffed in Johansson's rebound, but referee Bernie DeGrace was out of position and already had blown his whistle, stopping play. That was just one of 19 shots and countless scoring chances in the second period.

They had shattered the season high for shots (38) with 20 minutes remaining to play. They had nothing to show for it. They deserved to win the game; Dahlen deserved to get the game winner.