Putting an ear to the Washington Capitals' locker room last night, one might never have figured that the Capitals had lost a game, their home-ice advantage and maybe even some credibility at Capital Centre.

Is it accurate to say the Capitals were "up" after the 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers?

"I'd say so," Mike Gartner said. "People have written us off before, and that's the time when we play our best hockey. I guess a lot of people are writing us off again, right now."

Calling Craig Laughlin "up" would be an understatement.

"Three-two, no big deal," the Capitals right wing said of his team's status headed into Game 6 in New York on Sunday. "We're going to come back with character, and that's all there is to it. Some people are probably thinking, 'Aw, they gotta go to New York now.' Well, we're gonna beat them anyway, and it'll make it that much sweeter. We're cocky and confident, and we're ready to play right now.

"The best team in the end will always come out on top, and the Washington Capitals, right now, are the better hockey team. We outplayed 'em again tonight."

Laughlin wasn't the only Capital who felt that way.

Center Bob Gould: "We are the better hockey club. That's why it's so frustrating for us; they've got control. But we believe we've got a club that can go all the way."

Gartner: "We still feel like we're the better hockey team."

Defenseman Larry Murphy: "I think we're gonna bring it back here for the seventh game. We're just gonna bounce back and beat them."

Even Coach Bryan Murray got into the act, promising the home fans one more look at the Capitals, in Game 7 on Tuesday night.

The Patrick Division regular season champion Philadelphia Flyers probably spoke similarly until the first day of their early vaction after they lost a five-game series to the Rangers.

Somebody may have to explain to the Capitals that being better and winning games are not the same thing. And if Washington plays on Sunday as it did last night, the Capitals won't even be able to say they are better.

Even Rod Langway, Washington's standout defenseman, committed an uncharacteristic mistake that helped turn around a game that the Capitals dominated in the first four minutes en route to a 2-0 lead.

The Capitals were leading, 2-1, when Langway and New York's Tomas Sandstrom became entangled against the boards.

Langway's gloved hand wound up hitting Sandstrom square in the face, and Langway received a two-minute roughing penalty. It took only 40 seconds for Wilf Paiement to score for the Rangers and tie the game at 2-2.

"It was a bad penalty," Langway said. "They said I threw a punch. But I was throwing up my arm to try and pick him up to keep both men from falling ."

Langway said he thought the official who made the call had a bad angle on the play. "It cost us the lead, too," Langway added, underscoring the most important point.

"Their power-play goal, that might have deflated us," Laughlin said.

Despite believing they are better than the Rangers, the Capitals still have to figure out what happened after they took the 2-0 lead.

Gartner said he thought "it was a matter of us holding back, not putting enough offensive pressure on them after we took the lead . . . but there was no one cracking point, though."

Laughlin also said he thought he and his teammates "relaxed a bit" after scoring so quickly.

Any more relaxing, and the Capitals can just keep on doing so until next fall. As Lou Francesechetti said: "This is the only game they've beaten us legitimately out of the five."