It has been nine weeks since the Washington Capitals thrashed the Philadelphia Flyers at the Spectrum, built their early season record to an uncharacteristic 5-2 and seemed destined at last to finish first in the Patrick Division.

It has been one week since General Manager David Poile issued an ultimatum, directly to his players and indirectly to his coaching staff, promising a "reevaluation" and any necessary changes after the Flyers' visit to Capital Centre Saturday night.

The players appear to have assured their continued employment and Coach Bryan Murray's as well with a four-game unbeaten streak that has lifted them within five points of the first-place Flyers and within one of fourth-place Pittsburgh in the tightening Patrick race.

It remains, however, to dissect why the Capitals were 8-14-2 during the eight weeks separating their bursts of excellence.

The most logical explanation centers around the fact that the Capitals had two things to prove this season. Number one was the need to beat the Flyers, against whom they were 4-15-2 over the last three years. Number two was the push to escape the Patrick Division at playoff time.

Having accomplished the first with consummate ease, the players apparently chose to forget the rest of the seemingly endless 80-game regular season while awaiting the big test in April.

It took Poile's ultimatum to return idling minds to the task at hand, or at least the subsequent linking of his words with Murray's job. If the players could discern no challenging youngsters in the farm system, they certainly could see the endless supply of coaches out there and the possibility that a Mike Keenan- or John Brophy-type might soon be cracking the whip here.

There are other possibilities, of course. The players' own meetings may have restored their pride. Or perhaps the dressing room visit of owner Abe Pollin and team president Dick Patrick provided the right note to revive the work ethic.

A look at the standings provided a clue that New Jersey and Pittsburgh no longer could be ignored, so any Patrick Division team kissing off the regular season might not be able to recoup in April and May.

Suddenly, a team that had yielded 11 goals in embarrassing back-to-back defeats at Toronto and Detroit returned to its suffocating defense, permitting only six goals in four games.

Goaltender Pete Peeters, the NHL's best with a 2.29 goals-against average, was superb over that stretch, especially in the 2-2 tie at Montreal Wednesday. But the contributors included forgotten names like Lou Franceschetti, Michal Pivonka, Bob Gould and Bengt Gustafsson, whose all-round effort in Montreal probably was the best by a Capital this season.

Murray coached up a storm, managing personnel changes on the fly that confused Quebec and held off Montreal, at least until he had an extra player on the ice six seconds before the expiration of regulation.

Despite the turnaround, the Capitals remain a puzzling team. In their darkest days, they managed power-play goals aplenty, reeling off 24 in a 12-game stretch during which they were below .500 at 5-6-1. During the four-game resurgence, they have succeeded only once in 22 chances.

The penalty-killing has been superb, though, and the way the Capitals draw silly fouls, that is a good item to have working effectively. Opponents have converted only one of 23 chances in the last four games.

The Capitals have played only nine divisional games, fewest of any NHL team -- Pittsburgh already has played 19, Philadelphia 18 -- so the schedule will be increasing in importance, beginning Saturday.

After beating the Flyers in October, the Capitals were 3-0 within the division. In the interim, they have gone 0-5-1. It now must be seen whether they can maintain their new momentum against a Philadelphia team that is on a real roll, undefeated in 13 games.