Washington Capitals strength coach Frank Costello saw the difference in massive winger Chris Simon on the first day of training camp. Simon's 6-foot-4, 231-pound frame was ripped. He was in the best shape of his life. His shoulder, which had plagued him through three seasons, was healed.

All signs pointed to a breakthrough season, one in which a healthy Simon would merge his brawn and skill. As the season nears its midpoint, that's exactly what has happened. Simon began the season on the fourth line; he's now on the top line with Adam Oates and Peter Bondra. He has a point in each of the Capitals' past five games, the longest streak by a Capital this season and his longest since being acquired from Colorado in 1996. He has goals in four of the last five games and eight in total, tied for second on the club and just one fewer than his high in Washington.

Tonight against St. Louis at MCI Center, he will play his 29th game, more than he played in either of the last two seasons. Once noted as a feared pugilist who could chip in the odd goal, Simon continues to play physical hockey but has more goals than fights.

"He's not a tough guy; he's a hockey player who is tough," Coach Ron Wilson said. "And he's not a tough guy who can score; to me he's a hockey player first, who happens to be tough, and not a tough guy who happens to have good hands. . . .

"We talk to him all the time about that, and I think that's something he likes to hear from the coaching staff. We've said this from Day One, and it takes times to build up that trust and for him to make sure I'm not just telling him a line."

A renewed commitment to the training room and a positive attitude spurred Simon's resurgence. Simon worked out diligently this summer with other NHL players in Los Angeles. He pushed to come back from season-ending shoulder surgery, challenging himself mentally and physically.

"I think a problem with Simon in the past has been consistency in training," Costello said. "You can put a guy on any program, but he has to be consistent. If you do it for three weeks and then you're not doing it for a week or two, you're treading water. In the past, I think he had a little bit of a habit of treading water and maybe justifying in his mind that he's in shape. And when he comes in he's not quite at the level a guy who plays the type of game he plays needs to be in.

"This year he went out to L.A. earlier and he really dedicated himself. I think it was more of a commitment than anything else. I think Simon trained harder this summer and realized what it did for him, and he hasn't taken a step backwards from that at all."

Costello spoke weekly to Simon's trainer. The environment was perfect for a competitive athlete. Training with other players heightened the workouts--it became fun to go to the weight room every day.

"It's a great atmosphere for training," Costello said. "Training doesn't become a burden; it becomes almost like a competition and you develop great workouts. They push each other and compete and no one wants to be the slug there; everyone wants to be a hard worker. Simon took advantage of that."

Simon continues to work daily with Costello. He is one of the first players to arrive before practice and stays late to do special exercises.

"I trained as hard as I could, and I haven't missed a day of training," Simon said. "I've worked hard on and off the ice and stayed after practice to shoot pucks and do extra skating drills. I think I had a great base being in great shape this summer, and now my hands are coming back a bit and my shot is coming. I think if I keep working hard, things will keep getting better, but I have to keep doing it."

Wilson has noted the changes as well. He believes the 27-year-old has matured this season. In the past, not playing on special teams would sometimes affect Simon's game--he would allow the long wait between shifts to bother him. He wouldn't always accept responsibility for his own play.

"He's more composed," Wilson said. "He doesn't allow other things to knock him off his game. If he has a bad game instead of blaming others around him he's got a better grasp of saying, 'I didn't work hard enough, it was my fault, nobody else but my own.' And when he first got here that wasn't always the case. We had to talk to him about that.

"Simon has played great for us. The thing now is to keep him healthy. He's been a leader in the dressing room and a leader on the bench. When he steps on the ice good things seem to happen all the time."

Capitals Notes: General Manager George McPhee made calls to nearly every team in the league seeking to make a trade following the Capitals' awful trip to western Canada last week, but found no takers. He was hoping to add a forward, but it seems unlikely a deal will be made prior to the March trading deadline, he said. . . . The Capitals (13-16-6) are 12-9-2 against conference opponents this season; after tonight's game they play 11 of the next 13 games against Eastern Conference teams.

Capitals vs. St. Louis Blues

* Where: MCI Center.

* Time: 7 p.m.

* Tickets: Available.

* TV: WBDC-50.

* Radio: WTEM-980.

* Records: Capitals 13-16-6, 33 points; Blues 22-11-4, 48 points.

* Goalies: Capitals' Olaf Kolzig (10-13-6, 2.73 goals-against average) vs. Blues' Roman Turek (17-9-4, 2.07).

* Injuries: Capitals report no injuries. Blues D Marc Bergevin (flu) is questionable; RW Pavol Demitra (strained triceps) and RW Pascal Rheaume (shoulder) are out.