The door to the Washington Capitals' dressing room opened to a strange scene Saturday night, following the Capitals' 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers.

The only player visible was goaltender Clint Malarchuk, frantically sprinting around the room in his underwear.

As it turned out, Malarchuk was not being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. He had been showering when Coach Bryan Murray summoned the players to a closed-door meeting in the training room.

It is perhaps fitting that a team meeting preceded the five-day all-star break, since the Capitals have held enough of them this season to qualify for a franchise in the Kiwanis Club.

The meetings seem to work, because afterward the Capitals come out steamed up and playing at the level to which they are capable. A series of meetings in December was followed by an 11-game stretch in which they lost once. More meetings after a January loss to Winnipeg led to victories over powerful Montreal and Philadelphia.

Since the high generated by the overtime triumph over the Flyers on Super Bowl Sunday, Washington has been beaten by three straight Patrick Division opponents -- Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Rangers.

Once again, the Capitals have slipped below .500. They are within one point of slipping out of a playoff position and while they were being blanked by the Rangers Saturday, the three teams ahead of them -- Philadelphia, the Islanders and Pittsburgh -- were recording victories.

The wonder surrounding this team is that it seemingly cannot fulfill its acknowledged potential for greatness without a frequent boot in the backside.

Some players show up every night -- Mike Gartner, Kelly Miller, Scott Stevens, Dale Hunter. Rod Langway obviously is limited by his back problems. The rest of the team seems to be riding an escalator -- which periodically reverses direction.

Passing or shooting, many players exhibit a lack of concentration. There is a suspicion that all these meetings and the necessity for whip cracking may finally have made some players so fearful of committing a mistake that they are hesitant about making any kind of a play.

"We struggled to make a good pass and we struggled around the net," Murray said of the back-to-back home-ice losses to the Islanders and Rangers. "Everybody seems to be pressing and things aren't happening the way they do when you're on a roll.

"There are lots of games left and the race is still tight. But every time we have a chance to give ourselves some breathing space, we just dig ourselves deeper into a hole instead. We had such excellent performances last weekend, then we lose a game to Pittsburgh and all the confidence and enthusiasm from Montreal and Philly comes out of us."

The Capitals were given two days off to think about their situation before they resume practice Tuesday. They will return to action Thursday with the same pairing that proved so disruptive this past weekend, meeting the Rangers in New York Thursday and playing host to the Islanders Friday.

"The five days off should be beneficial," Murray said. "It would have been nice to go out on a high, but playing like this at the end of it kind of wrecked things. Now we have to start fresh and bounce back. We're certainly capable of it."

Capitals Notes:

After reviewing videotape, NHL Executive Vice President Brian O'Neill has removed the game misconduct penalty assessed to Stevens Jan. 31 . . . Gartner will be Washington's lone representative in the All-Star Game Tuesday at St. Louis. It will be his fourth appearance . . . Left wing Yvon Corriveau suffered a badly bruised left forearm Saturday when he was slashed by Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck . . . The Capitals have scored a total of five goals in their last four games . . . The Rangers' 42 shots Saturday matched the seasonal high against Washington, achieved by Montreal in an overtime tie Dec. 23.