What a difference a weekend makes. Three days ago, tonight's Capital Centre clash between the Los Angeles Kings and the Washington Capitals carried playoff overtones. There was a not unreasonable expectation that the third-place Kings would come to town just five points in front of their surprising challengers for Stanley Cup participation.

Instead, the differential is 11, and only the most optimistic - or stubborn - of Capitalists can conceive of Washington overhauling the regally clad purple and gold machine from the West Coast.

While the Capitals were slogging their way to a 2-1 loss in Pittsburgh Saturday night, the Kings were rallying for a 4-3 victory in Detroit. Then on Sunday Los Angeles further shocked Washington fandom with a 5-1 breeze over Buffalo's Adams Division leaders in a snow city.

"The weekend turned out to be a little setback in what we were looking for," understand the Capital' general manager, Max McNab, "We were ecpecting Detroit to maybe rise up. THat was their last kick of the cat for cathching anybody. And we were hoping for Buffalo to be jumping. We expected to be jumping ourselves in Pittsburg."

McNab was in Detroit and watched the Kings unleash the NHL's most efffective power play for a pair of third-period goalsthat turned the game arouns.

"Detroit took a couple of bad penalties, things that happened behind the play and were really foolish." McNab said. "L.A.'s power play was really on. THey scored three in the game ans could have six. They hit several posts in power-play situations ans were robbed in several others that were set up well."

The Kings have connected in 53 of 203 extra-man situations, a 26.1 per cent success story that places them even above Montreal. The power is generated principally by Marcel Dionne, Butch Goring, Mike Murphy, Tommy Williams and Gary Sergeant.

Dionne is second in NHL scoring with 40 goals, 11 on the power play, and 52 assirs. Goring ranks 11th with 68 points, having scored half of his 26 goals in extra-man situations. Williams has 12 power-play goals. The trio's total of 36 tops by seven the Capitals season power-play production.

Goalie Rogie Vachon has been an effective contributor to the Kings' recent surge. He has recorded shutouts in three of his last six games, gfive of the last 13. Gary Simmons moved behind the net in Buffalo, promting McNab to comment. "I guess they want vachon to be ready for us."

The Capital have dropped three of four meetings against the Kings, with the fourth a tie. Another contest is scheduled in Los Angeles March 10.

The Capital are unbeaten through seven home games, last tasting defeat at Capital Centre Jan.18 in a 3-0 loss to Montreal. That stalistic lends the tiny bit of credence that remains in the discussing playoff possibilities . The Capital play 10 of their remaining 15 games at home.

"We have to keep banging away." McNab said. "They've been relatively injury-free and might stub their toe. Just as long as we don't lose ours. What's the magic number, about 20?That's still a way to go."

If the other Washington lines were matching the output of Gerry Meehan. Bill Riley and Craig Patrick, there would still be reason for optimism. In 19 games, Mesahn has produced 11 goals and 17 assists while reducing his once doleful minus rating from 17 to 5. Riley is plus 7 highest figure ever tattained by a Capital.

"Ti would be fantastic for Meehan to get on the plus side" McNab said.

"He got hit early for a least 10 shorthanded goalss against our power play. When you take those into consideration, he has a great record."