The Washington Capitals have had five days to think about the sour apple they swallowed last weekend, suffering back-to-back losses to the New York Islanders and New York Rangers.

Now the opportunity is at hand for some more palatable bites, the schedule maker sending the Capitals against the Rangers in New York tonight, then back to Capital Centre Friday to meet the Islanders.

It is no secret that another double dose of defeat would leave Washington's playoff hopes in considerable doubt, if they are not in that state already.

"Mentally, a lot of our players appear to be looking forward to the playoffs, but we'd better put our act together or we might be in jeopardy of not making the playoffs," said General Manager David Poile. "I'm not happy and I'm very concerned.

"A week ago, we had perhaps our finest weekend of the season in beating Montreal and Philadelphia. This past weekend was our worst weekend and that's a reflection of our roller-coaster year, a lot of peaks and valleys. We're not playing at the level we should be."

Coach Bryan Murray was hoping that the five-day break would benefit the team and he expected the sight of the Rangers and Islanders to provide considerable motivation.

"I hope they do," Murray said. "We've got to believe we're in their ballpark. Our whole emphasis now has to be on making solid strides over the last 25 games.

"It appears to be a tough race, but I've got to believe we're going to play some excellent hockey, certainly well enough to be in the playoffs. I want to be better than that. I want an upbeat attitude going into the playoffs, so we'll do well in the playoffs."

Defenseman Grant Ledyard, obtained from Los Angeles Tuesday in a swap for winger Craig Laughlin, joined the Capitals last night in New York. With his arrival, Poile returned rookie defenseman Bill Houlder to Fort Wayne of the International League.

Houlder was called up Dec. 1, faced Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky on his first shift and played capably over a 30-game stretch. However, his ice time had declined in recent games.

Poile said, "Bryan and I had a couple of conversations about Billy Houlder, as to whether he was contributing as much as when we first brought him up and whether he was getting as much ice time as a young player should have. Because of the trade, we were able to make the move."

It has been a tough month for Houlder, with his father seriously ill, and he accepted the demotion without rancor.

"I wish I could stay the rest of the year, but I'm not able to, so I'll go back to Fort Wayne and pick up where I left off," Houlder said. "As I said in September, when I was sent down, I can't feel sorry for myself or I'll be down there forever.

"They want me to work on my mobility and strength. The only thing is, the guys up here are so much faster, I'm going to have to slow down the tempo. I'll be thinking too fast for the 'I.' "

Poile acknowledged that the Capitals' primary shortcoming right now is lack of scoring, but he said he had no further trades in mind.

"There is not a top goal scorer available, although obviously if we were to make available one of our better players, that would command a goal scorer," Poile said. "But while we might improve in one area, that would cause a weakness elsewhere. We're going to be in a grind every game and I expect some of our forwards to contribute more goals than they have up to now."