BLOOMINGTON, MINN., JAN. 18 -- The Washington Capitals took leave of Minnesota this morning, licking their wounds and wondering what they have to do to get back in the Patrick Division race.

"No, I don't, I really don't," General Manager David Poile said when asked if he thought the Capitals are a fifth-place team, which is their station at the all-star break.

"I think we have more talent today than we might have had last year at this time. It doesn't mean we're a better team, but I keep going back to the matter of why we're not a better team, or at least as good."

The Capitals dropped their third straight game Thursday night, 5-2 to the Minnesota North Stars. Actually, Washington's 44 points are the same they had last season after 48 games, but then they had to scramble to make the playoffs last spring too.

Rookie Peter Bondra isn't likely to be able to help end the losing streak. He hurt his shoulder when cross-checked by Minnesota's Doug Smail. He was to be examined today, but Poile hadn't heard the result.

"I would suppose that he will miss some time," Poile said. He didn't want to guess how much.

The players will have a couple of days to contemplate their plight, for other than Kevin Hatcher and trainer Stan Wong -- who will represent the team in Saturday's All-Star Game in Chicago -- the team will be off until Monday. At that point, the Capitals will practice before heading to Detroit for the fourth of five consecutive road games. They'll travel to Philadelphia after playing the Red Wings.

The Capitals are 0-3 on this trip. It's one thing to lose on the road to Montreal and St. Louis -- teams that are near the top of their divisions -- but the North Stars have been woeful. Before beating the Capitals, Minnesota had won only once in its previous 10 games and hadn't won at the oft-empty Met Center since Dec. 15.

"Another masterpiece," goalie Don Beaupre said.

Beaupre was offering a sarcastic self-appraisal as well as one for the team. He gave up what Coach Terry Murray described as a couple of "soft" goals, but the Capitals made neutral zone mistakes, had defensive lapses and couldn't convert on several excellent scoring opportunities against North Stars goalie Brian Hayward.

Michal Pivonka did score, with Al Iafrate getting an assist in his first game since Wednesday's trade brought him from Toronto. But the Capitals' only other goal was scored by Kelly Miller, whose foot was the means of production.

Hayward did make some good stops and left several Capitals shaking their heads. But they also hit him in the stomach or missed wide without distractions. They had a 9-2 edge in shots to start the game. At that point, Minnesota's Brian Bellows scored as the puck bounced off his leg. The North Stars built a 2-0 lead and the Capitals tied it at 2, but Mike Craig scored the eventual game-winner just 66 seconds later.

"Why can't we score?" Poile asked rhetorically as he paced in the press box during the first period.

"It's very disappointing to me and I assume frustrating for the players," he said today. He also went to Chicago for the All-Star Game and the league meetings that go with it. "The point is we have to score more and the offensive totals are very poor for just about all of our forwards. They are lower than my expectations and I'm sure lower than theirs."

Seven teams have scored fewer than the 155 goals registered by the Capitals. John Druce, who has been in a slump for six weeks while hampered by a sore wrist, leads the team with 18 goals. Montreal and Winnipeg are the only other teams that don't have at least one player with at least 20.

The Canadiens, who are in second place in the Adams Division, are getting by because only three teams have allowed fewer goals. The Jets aren't getting by -- they are in last place in the Smythe and tied with the Islanders for 18th place overall.

The Capitals' power play was tied for second in the league going into the game, but it was zero for nine for the night. With 4:38 left in the second period, Washington got a five-minute power play, but was able to get off only one shot on goal before intermission. The Capitals had none in the 22 seconds of the third period, then didn't do much with another power play right afterward.

"Whether it is the system or individuals' inability to score, I don't quite have the answer," Poile said. "Last night, it could have -- should have -- been over in the first 10 minutes. We didn't get anything on the five-minute power play and then the wheels came off."

Capitals Notes:

A fan at the Met Center accused Dino Ciccarelli of squirting him in the face with a water bottle as Ciccarelli was leaving the ice at the end of the game, Bloomington police said. Chief of Police Bob Lutz said today: "The fan demanded Ciccarelli be arrested. We declined to arrest, but did document the incident." Lutz said city prosecutors may wish to later bring charges, but "my recommendation would be not to file any criminal charges. The fan has a history of antagonizing coaches and player from other teams." Lutz added: "I think it is frivolous."