Uncooperative muscles in Rod Langway's back will render him unavailable to the Washington Capitals for at least two more games.

The veteran defenseman and team captain missed all of the Capitals' three-game road trip before the all-star break because of back spasms.

The team was hoping the knots would loosen in time for Langway to play in tonight's 7:35 game against Detroit at Joe Louis Arena. But that didn't occur and Langway didn't even make the trip, the second part of which has the Capitals playing in Philadelphia Thursday night.

They will be trying to end a three-game losing streak when they face the Red Wings and former Capitals coach Bryan Murray.

"We're not trying to hide something, it's just muscles," Capitals General Manager David Poile said of Langway's back.

Langway has had disk problems, but with this muscle ailment Poile said the treatment involves a combination of rest, stretching and anti-inflammatory drugs. He was to be reexamined late yesterday.

The new target date for Langway's return is Friday, when the Capitals play the Minnesota North Stars at Capital Centre.

The spasms first surfaced only a couple of hours before the Capitals' game against Calgary on Jan. 11. The Capitals played with five defensemen that night and Joel Quenneville was called up from Baltimore for the next night's game in Montreal.

However, Quenneville played progressively less over the three games, and yesterday the Capitals sent him back to Baltimore.

Quenneville wasn't alone. Winger Bob Joyce, who had done more sitting than playing, agreed to go to Baltimore on a two-week conditioning assignment.

The Capitals openly talked about trading Joyce earlier in the season, but there hasn't been a flood of interest. And the more he sits, the less interest there is likely to be.

"I don't want to pester David {Poile}," Joyce said last week in Montreal of a possible trade, which Joyce thinks might be best. "He'll do what he's going to do anyway. But obviously, I don't like sitting out."

Coming the other way on Interstate 95 were defenseman Mark Ferner and left wing Steve Seftel. Ferner, 25, played three games for the Capitals in October and had one assist but he has been in Baltimore since. Seftel, who will be making his NHL debut, is taking the place of rookie forward Peter Bondra, who injured his shoulder in Thursday's 5-2 loss in Minnesota.

"He was skating today but the doctor's diagnosis was that it might be seven to ten days," Coach Terry Murray said of Bondra, who will travel with the team. Thursday would be the seventh day since the injury.

Langway's continued absence comes at a time when the defense is changing again after last week's acquisition of Al Iafrate from Toronto.

Blessed with size, speed and skill, Iafrate has further changed the look of the Capitals, who were once renowned for their ability to keep the puck out of the net. The current group would draw at least as much attention for its offensive skills.

In Thursday's game, which was Iafrate's debut, Murray used three defensemen at times on the power play, with Calle Johansson working as a forward.

"I'd have to agree," said defenseman Kevin Hatcher, who leads the team in scoring with 48 points in 47 games. "{Mikhail} Tatarinov is very capable, myself, Calle and Al. If you take any of the four, he can play the offensive part of the game. But it's important all four concentrate on the defensive part of the game."

Hatcher says that with history -- recent and long-term -- in mind. If the past has been defensive, the actions of late have not.

There have been times when the Capitals look very loose in their end. There is a theory that highly skilled defensemen can use that skill to effectively clear the zone as well as score. The Capitals will need to do that, given their current makeup. Ferner is less of the stay-at-home defenseman than Langway, so when the Capitals take the ice tonight Mike Lalor will be the only one to fit the role.

"I don't think Terry's going to ask me to change my game," Lalor said with a slight chuckle, "other than to get it the heck going."