For the second time this season, Clint Malarchuk will ride a successful roll into Philadelphia, as he guards the Washington Capitals' net against the Flyers tonight in another of those battles for bragging rights between the top-rated teams in the Patrick Division.

On Oct. 22, Malarchuk handled 21 Philadelphia shots to earn his fifth straight victory, 4-1. But it took him a month to win another game and the Capitals slid steadily downhill in the interim.

Ten days ago, Malarchuk had settled into a backup role behind Pete Peeters, the NHL goals-against leader, when Peeters pulled a thigh muscle during the first period of the Capitals' contest against the Flyers at Capital Centre.

As an emergency replacement, Malarchuk was a 3-2 loser to the Flyers. He has not lost since, however, and last week's haul of three victories and a tie -- 2.45 goals-against average -- yesterday earned him selection as the NHL player of the week.

The key to that honor, of course, was Saturday's 28-save shutout against the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers, the first regular season shutout recorded by a Washington goaltender in 22 months.

Malarchuk attributes his success, both early and recent, to confidence. In between, he readily admits, it wasn't there.

"When you play a good game, it carries over and your confidence builds and builds," Malarchuk said. "It's important to keep building yourself up in your mind. I'm at the stage now where I have confidence whenever I skate out there.

"It's like a good goal-scoring streak, where everything a guy touches goes in. For any athlete, whether he's a goal scorer or a home run hitter, the confidence factor carries over."

Malarchuk's long stretch in the doldrums began with the 3-2 loss to Montreal that followed his victory in Philadelphia. No matter how well a goalie plays, he indicated, if he loses, then he probably should have been better.

"You look at games we lose by one goal {the Capitals have dropped 10} and, even if you played well, you still lost and you question your play," Malarchuk said. "Winning breeds confidence. You're better off being a 6-5 winner, confidencewise, than a 2-1 loser, because winning gives you a feeling that carries over."

The Capitals play so many close games that the decision often rests, as it did in that four-overtime marathon with the Islanders, on whether a puck hits the inside of a post and goes in or caroms outside and wide.

"A lot of us, as a team, just weren't getting any breaks for a lot of this season," Malarchuk said. "I don't believe in luck, but you have to get some breaks. Any luck we had seemed to be bad, both as individuals and as a team.

"Things are turning around now and we're starting to get some breaks. It's contagious and it works both ways."

Regardless of confidence or breaks or other intangibles, Malarchuk has nothing but praise for the defensive play in front of him. Washington, yielding 3.05 goals per game, is challenging Montreal (3.00) for the Jennings Trophy and Malarchuk says it is no accident.

"We've played very well defensively all year," Malarchuk said. "We struggled a week, that Toronto-Detroit trip {5-3 and 6-1 defeats} comes to mind, but overall we've played outstanding defense and that includes the forwards, because they're a big part of it."

Although Peeters is healthy once again, Malarchuk will start tonight, because Coach Bryan Murray likes to stick with the hot goaltender.

"Like a lot of our players, I don't think Clint played with a lot of confidence when we were struggling," Murray said. "Every time he gave up a goal, he had to wonder if that was the hockey game, because we weren't scoring.

"Now he's won a couple and he played awfully well against Edmonton. That has to be a confidence booster. I just hope he can continue to play that well."

Along with Peeters, center Mike Ridley has come off the injury list, after sitting out eight games with a strained knee ligament. So yesterday was moving day for goaltender Alain Raymond, who returned to Fort Wayne, and center Mike Richard, sent back to Binghamton.

Richard was scoreless in four games, but he moved the puck well on the power play and his presence helped to get some slumbering regulars skating at full speed.

"They told me it was a numbers game, now that Ridley's back," Richard said. "I was happy with the way I played and they told me they were happy, that I'll be back this year. I learned a lot and it was good experience for me."