For the Washington Capitals, even more important than a first-place finish is the need to enter the Stanley Cup playoffs on a winning note.

A speedy elimination in the first round would undo much of the progress the club has made this season and, no doubt, transform the burgeoning enthusiasm into one more chorus of "Same old Caps." Certainly, most of the new riders on the bandwagon would debark in a hurry.

Beginning with tonight's game at Capital Centre against Toronto (HTS at 7:35), the Capitals have 12 games in which to ease out of the tailspin that has seen them stumble to three straight defeats, a 5-7-1 record over the past month and second place behind Philadelphia.

A year ago, the Buffalo Sabres went down to the wire before losing the Adams Division title to Boston by one point. When the Sabres were quickly eliminated by Quebec, it was widely asserted that the inability to finish first was their downfall. Not so, said General Manager-Coach Scotty Bowman.

"Finishing first is fine, but we haven't put any priority on the top spot," Bowman said. "The big thing is to play solid hockey going into the playoffs, so that it will carry over.

"Everybody said last year that not finishing first took a lot out of us. That wasn't the big thing. When we finished the regular season, we weren't playing very well, and you can't suddenly turn everything around in a couple of days."

Asked if he agreed with Bowman's assessment, Washington winger Mike Gartner said, "One hundred percent. It's extremely important. The team most successful in the playoffs, the one that surprises other teams, is the one that's playing well over the last 10 or 15 games, is on a high and carries it in. That's where the upsets occur.

"It's important for us to turn things around soon -- like the next game. We need to play like we were a month ago. We have to be playing well. You can't just forget the mistakes you've been making and suddenly turn it around."

Team captain Rod Langway does not think the Capitals are far off the track. "The games we've lost, we've had the opportunity of winning," Langway said. "We have to build from that. You can isolate mistakes and make excuses, try to put the blame on someone else, but making excuses doesn't get you anywhere.

"When you have a bad game, you don't dwell on it. You have to forget that. Part of growing up as a hockey player is to accept what went before and look ahead. We have to find it, and it will come by looking in the mirror and deciding to work harder out there. We're not that far away. Edmonton is on a skid, but no one talks about that. We're in a race, so they talk about us. Now it's up to us to do something about it."

Coach Bryan Murray plans to talk individually with each player in the next few days to try to ascertain what hangups have contributed to the recent slide -- yesterday, the players conducted a meeting without the coaches. Murray is convinced the problems are not the fault of his system, which he called "as diverse as anybody's."

"What we're going through in a couple of cases is a bit of individual pressure," Murray said. "Guys had goals they wanted to meet and with the season winding down they were trying to do more offensively than they should. As a result, they weren't as involved in the overall game as they had been.

"It's a matter of getting them back. And we haven't continued to roll at the intensity we had, for a number of reasons. Gus (Bengt Gustafsson) has been hurt. Alan (Haworth) has been limping the last few games. A couple of guys just aren't going well. And Pat (Riggin) is tired.

"We needed these days to regroup. I don't know whether the trading deadline had any effect, but I guess a few guys were concerned. That's gone now, we have a new player (Mark Taylor) and I'm confident we can turn things around."

Al Jensen will be in the net tonight, and Murray said he is likely to see considerable action over the next two weeks. "Al has to get some games and we have to get the heat off Pat for a while," Murray said.

Taylor will make his Washington debut, centering the fourth line with Greg Adams and Bob Gould. Gustafsson makes yet one more return from the injury list, at left wing with Dave Christian and Gartner.