A team wins a game, then loses one, wins another before losing another, ties one along the way. What does it all mean?

Mediocrity.

But even in the National Hockey League, especially in the Patrick Division, mediocrity does not guarantee there will be action in April.

At some point, the Washington Capitals will have to take more steps forward than back if they are to make the playoffs for the ninth straight season. If they don't make the 16-team party, there will be some people taking steps out of town.

"It's critical we make the playoffs," General Manager David Poile said. "A lot of personnel decisions will be affected by whether we make the playoffs."

The Capitals proved last season that it is possible to be mediocre for an entire regular season and do reasonably well in the playoffs. But then living off the past might be part of the problem.

Center Mike Ridley is among those hoping that the Capitals don't get too excited about Tuesday's come-from-behind, 5-3 victory over the Smythe Division cellar-dwelling Vancouver Canucks.

"It's been brought up before that 'this win might get us going,' but I don't know about that stuff," Ridley said. "It's always a brand new game and just because we came back against the Islanders and Detroit and won in overtime and came back against Vancouver, doesn't mean the next game is going to be any easier or that we're going to get on a roll.

"You get on a roll by not thinking what happened in the game before. It works the reverse way. We didn't play that well against the Jets, but you don't want to think about that game, otherwise you'll get into a down streak."

The Capitals have played tension-filled games lately. Five of the last eight went to overtime and two others had two-goal differentials with empty-net goals. But after all of that excitement, they are only 4-3-1 against those teams.

The Capitals are 11-14-3 in December, January and February (two games). Six of those wins were over teams with a winning record at the time. In the last 10 games, the only victory over a team with a winning record was against Detroit, which fell to .500 with the loss. Of nine games left this month -- beginning with Friday night's game with Edmonton -- only one is against a team with a losing record.

"We had some comebacks and then some where we have found a way to lose," winger Dino Ciccarelli said. "We know it and we've talked about it. There are only 10 points between first and fifth. If we can put any kind of streak together, we'll be in good shape."

The fifth-place Capitals have had chances to make up some ground. Fourth-place New Jersey won one of 13 games in a recent stretch before winning three of its last four to remain three points ahead of the Capitals. The New York Rangers have been alone in first place since Oct. 22, but they are 7-6-2 in their last 15 games -- including last night's win against the Islanders.

"I don't want to spend too much time and energy worrying about what other teams are doing," Coach Terry Murray said. "I want to focus on getting our game in order and get our key people playing at the level of expectations we have. And we have those expectations because it's been there in the past. We have to live up to those expectations and shoulder the responsibility of being recognized as a top team. That means you have to do it all."

Capitals Notes: Left wing Bob Joyce cleared waivers at noon yesterday and was assigned to Baltimore. . . .

Defenseman Rod Langway did not practice yesterday and was due to visit doctors again in hopes of finding a way to alleviate the soreness in his back. He won't play this weekend and Murray wasn't very optimistic about the three-game, four-day West Coast road trip at the end of next week.

"I can't plan on it until I hear from Stan {Wong, trainer} or the doctor, and even then we're looking at five-six days of practice," Murray said.