The Washington Capitals boarded a bus yesterday and disappeared from view for 11 days. They hope the journey is not accompanied by a slide in the Patrick Division playoff hunt.

Five weeks ago, the Capitals hit the road with a five-game winning streak and second-place status, a mere point behind pace-setting Philadelphia. They dropped four of five on that trip and skidded to fifth.

When they left for New Jersey and tonight's Patrick Division clash with the Devils, the Capitals owned a three-game victory string and once again held second place, four points behind the Flyers. They were further buoyed by the return of ailing defenseman Rod Langway.

In the packed Patrick, however, things change quickly. Last night, the New York Islanders used one of their two games in hand vis-a-vis Washington to beat Calgary and drop the Capitals to third. Should the Devils win tonight, Washington would be one point from fifth place and potential playoff nonqualification.

Following tonight's match, the Capitals visit Winnipeg Friday, Minnesota Saturday, Los Angeles Feb. 24 and the Islanders Feb. 27 before facing New Jersey here March 1.

Despite the importance of the trip, the Capitals will not be noticed by the TV cameras until they reach Long Island. Radio is not even an alternative tonight, with WMAL committed to Maryland basketball.

Coach Bryan Murray does not mind the out-of-sight, out-of-mind cliche. He just doesn't want to fall out of the race -- and he does not expect a repeat of the last long trip.

"We've been playing differently the last week," Murray said. "Guys feel better about themselves right now. Even though we'd won a few before the last time, we hadn't been at a good level of play and we didn't feel good about ourselves.

"The schedule is a bit different this time, too. Last time, we got blown out in Calgary {8-2} and then we lost that tough game in Edmonton {3-2}. If we'd won in Edmonton, it would have given us a positive thing to build on."

What the Capitals are building on is the knowledge they can score some goals -- having collected 16 in successive victories over the Rangers, Islanders and Calgary -- and that they can come from behind.

They wiped out an early 2-0 deficit and thrashed the Islanders, 6-2. Then they tied Calgary with 1:27 left in regulation and won in overtime.

"There's a positive feeling around here and everybody is relaxed and loose, which is good," defenseman Kevin Hatcher said. "There's been a lot of talk in practice and that comes of being confident. We have a lot more confidence and desire.

"For a while, if we were down by a goal, we'd have to struggle to come back. But the last two games, we've bounced right back. We have to feel good with a three-game winning streak and I just hope we don't run into anything like that Edmonton game on this trip. That was a heartbreaker, to play so well and lose on a bad goal {kicked in by Mark Messier}."

"Our last road trip was a disaster, losing four out of five," said winger Mike Gartner. "We can't look far ahead this time. We have to play each game like a big game -- and every one is a big game, the way things are in this division.

"You can go from fighting for first one weekend to fighting to stay out of last the next. Any team in our division that can put together a string near the end will be in very good shape."

Langway tested his strained right thigh in yesterday's practice and pronounced himself ready to face the Devils. He was hurt in the first period of Thursday's victory over the Rangers and watched the weekend wins from the press box.

"It wasn't bad at all, watching those games," Langway said. "The team is playing well and keeping the goals down. This is an unselfish team, not going for breakaways or individual stuff but making safe plays and getting great effort from everyone."

Murray usually is reluctant to change a winning lineup, but said, smiling, he would make an exception.

"When you win, it's more difficult to sit guys out," Murray said. "But you can't allow a healthy Rod Langway to sit out. We have to get him in there."