There was the four-game winning streak in October, then a four-game losing streak in November. There was a five-game winning streak earlier this month, but that was followed by four losses in five games.

Almost four months into a roller-coaster season, the Washington Capitals still aren't sure what to make of themselves. Yet 49 games after this season of high hopes began, they're still in perfect position to finish first or last.

After Saturday's 3-3 tie with Buffalo at the Capital Centre, the Capitals were an eyelash above .500 at 22-21-6 and an eyelash out of second place in the Patrick Division -- a point behind the second-place New York Islanders and six behind the first-place Philadelphia Flyers.

But they were also an eyelash out of fifth place -- three points in front of the New Jersey Devils.

If the Capitals are wondering what to make of all this, they won't have to wait long to find out. After games against Winnipeg and Montreal at the Capital Centre this week, they play 20 of their final 29 games against Patrick Division teams, a closing stretch that begins next Saturday against the Flyers.

"In this division, no team is going to win 'em all," Capitals Coach Bryan Murray said. "It's very even right now, and every team is going to have a chance . . . You have to make hay while you can. We're playing reasonably well right now, and we're playing at home."

Center Bob Gould added, "There're going to be a lot of big games at the end of the year. It seems in the past we always had Hartford and Chicago still on the schedule at the end, and we're already done with them. I guess that's good. We've got some games coming up that, if we win, we can put some distance between ourselves and the rest of the division. We're starting to play more consistently. It seems every night has had a bright spot and given us something to build on."

The Capitals have gotten a victory and a tie so far in their current five-game home stand, the longest of the season. But as good as being at home and on familiar ice is the schedule, which is suddenly being kind.

The Capitals had three days off before the Buffalo game and will have two days off before Winnipeg on Tuesday and two more before Montreal on Friday.

"It's a situation where we won't be looking too far ahead," Murray said. "We have a chance to prepare one game at a time. We look very short-term and see what matchups we can use for that one game."

Many of the signs are good. Murray's team played sloppily on Saturday, but still got a tie, a moral victory against a team that has run up a 40-5-8 record against Washington. The bright spots were Mike Gartner's 31st goal, and rookie Bill Houlder's first career goal. Gould also got his seventh.

The Capitals outshot the Sabres, 29-21, but Buffalo goalie Tom Barrasso had an outstanding night, stopping 26 shots. They also killed off four Buffalo power plays and scored on one of their five chances.

The Capitals had two leads Saturday, getting the first 6:45 into the first period when Gould took a pass from Peter Sundstrom and beat Barrasso for a 1-0 lead. The Sabres tied it on John Tucker's sixth goal, but Houlder's 30-foot slap shot got Washington a 2-1 lead 16:39 into the period.

The Sabres then scored twice in a 36-second stretch early in the second period for a 3-2 lead. Mike Foligno got the first one, skating past Scott Stevens on the right side and, with terrific puck handling, flipping it first inside, then outside and past Pete Peeters for a 2-2 tie.

That one came 2:03 into the quarter, and 36 seconds later, Buffalo got the lead when Christian Ruuttu got his 20th goal of the season by scooting a shot through Kevin Hatcher's legs and into the net.

Trailing, 3-2, the Capitals got the tie on Gartner's 31st goal. It came 16:07 into the second period, and as it turned out, was the final score of the game.