The snowstorm that ripped through the area yesterday forced Washington Capitals Coach Ron Wilson to cancel practice, but if any NHL team deserved an unscheduled day off, it is his club. The Capitals completed an 8-2 romp over Tampa Bay just a few hours before the snow blew into town, running their unbeaten streak to eight games, the franchise's longest since the 1988-89 season.

Tonight they can stretch that mark to nine games for the first time since 1986-87 when the Calgary Flames come to MCI Center, though the inclement weather could conceivably postpone the contest. For now, it seems Mother Nature is the only force capable of derailing the league's hottest team.

The Capitals have lost once since Christmas (9-1-3), scoring 48 goals and allowing 25. They are 8-1-2 in January and finish the month with three straight home games--they have earned points in 17 of their last 18 games at MCI Center. They could produce the second-most productive month in franchise history--they won 12 games in December 1984.

They are doing it at both ends, playing a tight defensive system to limit opponents' chances and force turnovers, and crashing the net at the other end, piling up goals by scoring from near the crease. The Capitals have scored 22 goals in their last four games.

"The puck doesn't always go in like this," winger Chris Simon said. "But if we can keep playing our system and minimize the other team's opportunities, we can win some good hockey games."

Simon is at the heart of the team's offensive explosion. The 6-foot-4 bruiser has 11 goals in the past 16 games, an incredible pace, especially coming off 11 straight games without a goal. Simon's career high for goals is 16, scored with Colorado in 1995-96; he already has 15 goals this season, tied with Peter Bondra for the team high.

It's not the quantity of Simon's goals, it's the quality--Simon is using his quick release and powerful wrists to snap wicked shots past opposing goalies. Simon's 25 points are his most as a Capital and nine off his career high, also set in 1995-96. The oft-injured winger also has played in 39 games this season; he never played more than 42 games in any of his three previous seasons in Washington.

"Look at his shot, the kind of goals he's scoring," Bondra said. "If you look back, they're perfect shots."

Simon is hardly alone. Budding sniper Richard Zednik has scored six goals in the past five games--he had seven goals in his first 40 games. Zednik is four goals and three points shy of his career bests. Center Adam Oates has five assists in the past two games and 31 points in the last 32 games. Center Jan Bulis has seven assists in the last five games. He already has 26 points, a career high. Fourteen of left wing Ulf Dahlen's 18 points have come in the last 17 games. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar has 11 goals and 23 points in the last 21 games; he had no goals and five assists in his first 20 games.

A new hero seems to emerge each night--before Monday's blowout of the Lightning, the Euro line of Dahlen, Bulis and Zednik had carried the offense with 19 points in four games together. That line worked hard but did not produce a single point Monday night, yet the Capitals still put a season-high eight goals on the scoreboard.

"It's certainly been a lot easier on the goalies and the 'D' if we're getting this kind of scoring up front," goaltender Olie Kolzig said. "It's been great, especially when you're winning. It makes it so much easier mentally when you're winning. When you're winning, you get rejuvenated."

Capitals Notes: The Capitals' longest unbeaten streak is 14 games, something they accomplished in the 1983-84 and 1982-83 seasons. . . . The Flames are the surprise team in the NHL, moving into playoff position in the loaded Western Conference led by goalie Fred Brathwaite, who is in the top five in save percentage and shutouts.

The Flames already have set an NHL record with 10 overtime wins (10-1-5)--three of their past five wins were in overtime. They are 8-14-2 on the road. This will be the team's only meeting; the Capitals do not visit Calgary or Colorado this season.