It was an innocent question, posed in friendly conversation, but it surely is one that sears the psyches of longtime Washington Capitals watchers celebrating five victories in the last six games.

Are the Capitals once again building everyone up for a big letdown?

Two years ago, the Capitals needed to win their final game to keep their playoff hopes alive. Instead, they tied Atlanta and died a few hours before Vancouver would have destroyed their hopes by winning at Los Angeles.

Last season, the Capitals won their finale over Detroit, but fell a point short of postseason competition when Toronto upset Quebec an hour later.

In each of those seasons, the Capitals needed only to finish in the top 16 teams overall to qualify for the playoffs. This year, the rules have been changed. The top 16 is not enough; they must finish among the top four in the Patrick Division.

So, if the Capitals truly are jinxed, this year's conclusion is obvious. The team will finish in the top 16, but last in the Patrick Division. For maximum suffering, of course, the difference will be one point.

With Pittsburgh winning at Quebec last night, the Capital trail the fourth-place Patrick team by seven points. They are, naturally, among the NHL's top 16. All the ingredients are present for yet one more disappointment.

"No way," insisted captain Ryan Walter. "I don't believe in luck, so I can't believe in that. We're on a hot streak and we have to go out there to win every game. After that, it's up to Pittsburgh. But at least we have a legitimate shot at it, which we didn't have after those first 15 games.

"After the second period against Calgary last night, I told the guys, 'We're playing pretty well, but let's give a little extra. When the season's over, we don't want to think back to this game as the one that put us one point out of the playoffs.'

"It's a fact that we lost by one point last year and we realize it, but we don't dwell on it. It's not a concern. This is another year."

"There's no jinx here, that's a fallacy," said General Manager Roger Crozier. "I hear people in the building talking about a cloud hanging over us. But what we've had is an attitude problem. Now we've got the players believing they can win.

"It's a fragile thing and the wrong moves can wreck it in a hurry. We made a lot of changes early and now we have to be deliberate. I think we're about four players from being competitive with the best teams in this league. We have to fill the holes one at a time and not try to do it all at once. But we've certainly got a fine nucleus here."

"I don't think there's been any jinx here," said Coach Bryan Murray. "On a regular basis, the franchise has put itself in a difficult position. There has been a lack of intensity early in the year and a shortage of depth throughout the years. That's the basic reason for not making the playoffs. The deep teams eke out enough wins.

"It's taken Roger and I a long time to get the right people playing at the level we want them. Now I see signs that we're going to be a regular playoff team or in the middle of the pack unless something drastic happens.

"As far as Pittsburgh is concerned, we still have the five points and we're even in games now. We have a tough schedule, playing tougher teams, with four against Philadelphia, two against the Rangers and two against the Islanders. But we have more home games and we'll have to see how it works out. What we must do is win those three games from Pittsburgh."

The Capitals, 1-14 and 16 points behind Pittsburgh on Nov. 11, have played .500 hockey ever since. Tonight at 7 they will be in Philadelphia's Spectrum, where they were humiliated in their first 12 visits. They have won three of their last four in that arena, successfully ending one jinx. Now they must try to rid themselves of the biggest one of all.