Tonight is one of those "four-point" nights for the Washington Capitals, who play Patrick Division rival Pittsburgh at Capital Centre at 7:35.

"We're trying to play it down, but it's really the classic four-point situation," General Manager David Poile said yesterday. "To me, Pittsburgh is on the upswing. They were hit with adversity early, with (Randy) Carlyle's back injury and (Mike) Bullard's mononucleosis.

"They beat us in the first one, so winning here would certainly get the month of December off to a nice start."

Both Carlyle and Bullard are back in the Penguins' lineup, and while Bullard has played sluggishly, Carlyle had three goals and four assists in his previous three games before being blanked last night as Pittsburgh lost to Chicago, 4-2.

Pittsburgh has lingered in the lower regions of the division with its 8-13-4 record, but has steadily improved. Against Minnesota last week, Pittsburgh tied, 6-6, in the final 30 seconds. And goaltender Denis Herron, the likely starter against the Capitals, is unbeaten in his last five starts.

And how could the Capitals forget that last meeting, Oct. 27, when the Penguins beat them, 7-5? Washington gave up four power play goals that night. "But we scored four, too," Coach Bryan Murray remembered yesterday. "It just wasn't enough.

"We've been working on our power play, getting those guys out maybe half an hour earlier," he said after practice. "Today I spent half an hour with Dennis Maruk's group, and then another half-hour with (Milan) Novy's or (Mike) Gartner's. We think that by the repetition, with stress on certain things, it's an area we will improve."

Poile would like to see the Capitals' power play unit among the league's top 10. "I've got three standards for this team and I don't think they're unrealistic," he said. "Top 10 in power plays, penalty killing and goals-against. If we fall into any one of those categories, we should be playing at least .500 hockey."

Through Sunday's game against the New York Islanders, Washington's power play ranked 13th, at 22.5 percent (25 goals in 111 chances). Short-handed, the Capitals were 14th (74.2 percent), and their goals-against average (3.78 per game) was 10th, closer to what Poile would like to see.

"The fourth statistic, which obviously goes hand in hand with our goals-against, is this: in every game in which we give up three goals or less, we'll either win or tie," Poile said. "In this day and age, allowing the opposition so little means you'll come out with a point or two. In maybe 14 of 22 games where we've allowed three or less, we've lost maybe one or two. The others were ties or wins."

Of Washington's 23 games, 10 victories or ties were the result of low scoring by opponents. The Capitals were beaten only twice (by Philadelphia, 3-2, and Minnesota, 3-1) in giving up three goals.

"I'm trying to get across that it's better to limit the goals," Poile said. "I know Quebec is playing these 8-6 games, but to me, winning, 5-3, is better than winning, 8-6, one night, then losing, 7-5, the next."

Murray said his team has made "great strides" in the last 10 to 12 games, despite its "mediocre" beginning.

"We were playing and nothing was happening," he said.

But overall, compared to last season at this time, the Capitals have upgraded themselves. Tied with the Calgary Flames as the NHL's most improved team, they have scored 81 goals while allowing 87, one small step up from last season when they had scored 78 goals and had given up 91 after 23 games.