The Buffalo Sabres won 28 games last season and have gotten past the first round of the playoffs only once the past five years. They've averaged 38 victories a season in those five years and, by almost any measuring stick, aren't one of the NHL's powerhouses.

So why can't the Washington Capitals touch them?

"That's an interesting question," Capitals Coach Bryan Murray said. "I don't really know. It's not like they dominate us, and the games have been close . . . but they do beat us."

Consistently. The Capitals, who regularly beat teams such as the Edmonton Oilers can't touch the Sabres, having gone a chilling 5-40 against them in the last 14 seasons. Many of those losses came in the Capitals' first eight years (2-28), when they had trouble beating anyone.

But even lately, when the Capitals have been among the better teams in the NHL, they've had problems with the Sabres, having defeated them three times the last four seasons. This season, the teams have played twice in Buffalo with the Sabres winning 6-5 in October and 5-3 in November.

The Capitals get another chance at 7:35 tonight when the two teams play at sold-out Capital Centre, where Washington last beat Buffalo -- on Nov. 17, 1984.

"It's a hard thing to explain," Murray said. "They play a little different style than us, and their arena is an advantage. The ice is smaller and the boards are faster, which makes a difference. But they've beaten us here, too."

Murray doubted the Capitals had developed a psychological block about playing Buffalo because "most of the time, players just go out and play. A few of them have had difficulties, and I'm sure they think about it before a game. It does seem every time we've played them, Buffalo has gotten really good goaltending."

The goaltending has been very good recently, with Jacques Cloutier having beaten the Capitals twice this year and once last year.

"When we're going to play them, I don't even think about them being the better team," defenseman Larry Murphy said. "The only time I think about their record against us is when someone mentions it. It doesn't feel like a legitimate streak, and maybe that's because we only play them a couple of times a year. When you play so many teams a few times a year, you're going to have that kind of streak against someone. But whatever happened in the early years, I don't even count that."

Likewise, right wing Mike Gartner had no explanation.

"We don't play them a lot, but that's no excuse," he said. "We don't see Edmonton a lot, but we do okay against them. Maybe they prepare better mentally and what we've got to do is get ready to play the game. I know this about Buffalo: That's a very well-coached team. Ted Sator does a good job."

The Capitals will have had three days off after Tuesday's 6-4 victory over New Jersey, while the Sabres played New Jersey last night.

The Sabres also are catching the Capitals at a time when they're showing signs of breaking out of a scoring slump. Gartner had his second straight two-goal game and his seventh of the season.

Even better news for the Capitals is that center Michal Pivonka, who scored three goals in his first 43 games, had two against New Jersey. That performance is the kind Murray has been looking for and the reason he stuck with Pivonka, 21, through a long dry spell.

"I heard comments about how he played in Chicago, but I thought that line {with Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley} was our best," Murray said. "Pivonka needed that, and I hope it continues. It's up to him to keep his play at this level. That's the thing about young players. You have to give them a chance. Sometimes, it's tough to stay with them, especially when they're making mistakes and hurting you. You talk to them and work with them constantly, but they have to go on the ice and do it."

Sabres 7, Devils 3:

Phil Housley scored a hat trick and Christian Ruuttu had his second consecutive four-point game with two goals and two assists to lift host Buffalo.

Rangers 6, Canucks 3:

In Vancouver, Tomas Sandstrom scored two first-period goals helping New York snap a seven-game winless streak.

Jets 5, Kings 3:

In Winnipeg, Paul MacLean scored once and assisted on Andrew McBain's third-period power-play goal to beat Los Angeles.