Professional hockey is a fickle business.

One week, the fans and the media trade the stars, fire the coach and bury the team. Another week, the stars are shining, the coach is a genius and the team is destiny's darling.

"This is the type of business where that happens," Washington Capitals Coach Bryan Murray said yesterday with a measure of resignation in his voice.

Murray and Capitals General Manager David Poile both said the post-Christmas evaluation Poile announced after a 5-3 loss at Toronto Dec. 15 and a 6-1 loss at Detroit Dec. 16 remains on their Sunday agendas. However, a win or a tie tonight at Capital Centre (8:05) against the Philadelphia Flyers, who are unbeaten in their last 13 games, will keep the Capitals unbeaten in their five games since the debacle in Detroit. It also would reaffirm Murray's and Poile's apparent inclinations to make no drastic changes.

"David and I will sit down after {today's} game and make some decisions," Murray said. "Whether to bring players up from the minors or not; what we should be looking for; who should be playing during different spots in the schedule."

Of reports concerning his possible demise, Murray said, "I think everything was made into something that wasn't totally right at the time."

Of reports concerning possible trades, Murray said, "I don't think anything like that is ever ruled out. But there have not been any names brought up to us as far as I know and, as I far as I know, we haven't made any overtures to other teams."

"We have some kids who have played well in the minors and when the team played poorly in Toronto and Detroit, we thought about whether it was time to give them a chance."

So, after Sunday's Poile-Murray meeting, it seems possible a Binghamton Whaler or two might get a chance (although right now, the most likely prospects -- defensemen Grant Jennings and Tony Kellin -- are injured and a third possibility, center Mike Richard, recently said he didn't think he was ready for the NHL). But that seems to be it.

Unless . . .

"I said at the time we would reassess everything after the next five games," Poile said. "I'm very happy we're undefeated in the first four. We'll have to see how we do against the Flyers."

You remember the Flyers. Last year, they were Wales Conference champions. Last month, they were a sickly 6-13-3 and dueling with the New York Rangers for last place in the Patrick Division. Today, they are 17-13-5 and in first place in the division. For those of you without a schedule, that means they have not lost since Nov. 21. And they have accomplished this without making any substantive changes along their bench -- or behind it.

The difference?

"Confidence is a tremendous thing," Murray said. "Goaltending is a tremendous thing. Ron Hextall has come back and is playing well and he gives their guys a lot of confidence when they know he can make the big save when the need arises."

Hextall, who began the season by waiting out an eight-game suspension he earned for slashing the Edmonton Oilers' Kent Nilsson in last spring's Stanley Cup finals, has worked his goals-against average down to 3.30. The Flyers also have gotten increased production from defenseman Mark Howe, who played through a series of injuries at the beginning of the season, and forwards Dave Poulin, Rick Tocchet and Scott Mellanby. In addition, center Peter Zezel has begun to establish himself on a power play unit that earlier this season went through a zero-for-47 stretch.

"They even look undefeated when they skate out at the beginning of the game," New York Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey said recently. "They look like they know they're going to win."