The New Jersey Devils have a winning record against the Washington Capitals in their last nine regular season games. But whether it be through fate or the alignment of the planets, they have also been accommodating when the Capitals badly needed a victory.

And today, with Washington reeling, the Devils visit again.

The 1:35 p.m. game at Capital Centre offers the Capitals a chance to end an eight-game winless streak, that includes seven losses, four in a row. The Devils are 3-0-5 in their last eight games.

A year ago today, the Capitals began an eight-game losing streak. After the eighth loss, Terry Murray replaced brother Bryan as coach, and the Capitals won the next night, beating the Devils, 9-6. Three months later, the Capitals met the Devils in the first round of the Patrick Division playoffs. Washington then found scoring in bunches from Dino Ciccarelli, saw the quiet birth of John Druce as a playoff hero and completed most of the little tasks needed for the 4-2 playoff series victory.

"We were real confident, but we were also a scared team, too," goalie Don Beaupre said of the mood before the playoffs. "Nobody wanted to be eliminated in the first round and we had something to prove."

There are still 39 games left in the marathon that is the NHL schedule, but it's harder to qualify for the playoffs in the six-team Patrick Division than any of the other five-team divisions.

"There is an inner confidence that we can win, but it takes more than confidence," Beaupre said. "Just because you were a Stanley Cup team last year, doesn't mean you are this year."

What the Capitals got plenty of in the playoffs against the Devils were goals and good checks. If one play can symbolize a series, it was when Ciccarelli lifted the puck from Devils defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov and scored on Sean Burke moments into Game 1. But during the current winless streak, the Capitals never have scored more than three goals, which means their defensive lapses loom larger in importance. In addition, they have not been as physical as they were last season.

"Everybody has certain roles, different strengths that got them to the NHL and we've got to get back to those basics," Ciccarelli said. "I think back to the playoffs and we were a grinding, physical team.

"We can't worry about scoring every shift. Offensively, we don't match up with a lot of other teams. The Capitals have always prided themselve on defense and that's the first step."

Defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov didn't play most of the third period in Saturday's 4-3 loss at Quebec.

"Play bad," Tatarinov explained.

Asked if his knee was bothering him, he replied, "No, play bad."

As for the other injured Capitals, Dave Tippett (shoulder) may play today, but it's not certain. Center Peter Zezel, who missed the Quebec game after re-injuring his ankle, practiced yesterday and said he would see how it felt in the pre-game skate.

Defenseman Neil Sheehy might be out for the season because of a herniated disk in his back, which was reported yesterday in the Washington Times.

Sheehy broke a bone in his leg and ankle Sept. 20 in a fight with Buffalo's Mike Hartman. Sheehy began practicing again, but apparently hurt his back Dec. 18 while practicing with the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks. He didn't tell team officials until last Friday, according to General Manager David Poile.

In the meantime, Sheehy went to a chiropractor.

"I thought if he could do a quick adjustment I might be ready to play," Sheehy said yesterday.

The chiropractor suggested Sheehy get a magnetic resonance imaging test. Sheehy said he had the test done on his own and the results showed a herniated disk. He then brought the test results to team physician Richard Grossman.

"Oh, no, not at all," Sheehy said when asked if he had a problem in dealing with team physicians. Poile said the team would cover the costs Sheehy incurred.

As for treatment, Sheehy is supposed to do as little as possible for several weeks, while taking anti-inflamatory drugs. And surgery is not out of the question.

"That's getting ahead of things, but with an injury like this, surgery is always a possibility," Sheehy said. "But there is no way I'm giving up hope."