VANCOUVER, FEB. 17 -- Kirk McLean was relieved to have won his first game in weeks, yet he was concerned.

"We have no time to wait," said the Vancouver Canucks goalie.

The Washington Capitals don't either. They lost to the Canucks, 4-2, Saturday night at Pacific Coliseum. Both teams are in fifth place in their divisions and would not make the playoffs if the season ended today.

With New Jersey beating Philadelphia on Saturday, the Capitals' second loss in two nights left them four points behind the Devils for the final slot in the Patrick Division.

Four points is hardly insurmountable, but the season is dwindling. The Vancouver game was the 60th for the Capitals (27-30-3), meaning three quarters of the regular season is complete. The Capitals were 26-30-4 at this point last season, when they advanced to the Wales Conference finals before losing to Boston.

The last quarter begins Monday at 4:05 p.m. at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., where the Capitals will face the Los Angeles Kings.

This is hardly the outfit they would pick to end a skid. For even with their 5-4 overtime loss to Boston on Saturday, the Kings have lost just three of their last 11 games. The Kings, front-runners in the Smythe Division, are one point ahead of second-place Calgary, which drew close by winning tonight against St. Louis.

The Capitals are hard to figure. They can be focused and sharp against the best teams in the league as victories over the Kings (4-3 in the only prior meeting this season), Bruins and Flames evidence. But they also can have disasters against good teams, as Friday's 8-2 mess in Calgary showed.

The same split personality applies to their play against weaker teams. Against the Canucks, goals by Dino Ciccarelli and Mike Ridley had the Capitals ahead, 2-0, heading into the third period. They couldn't get the next goal, which might have sunk the Canucks, who are about as fragile as the Capitals. Then they started making defensive mistakes. Ronnie Stern and Gerald Diduck scored within 39 seconds early in the period and Dan Quinn won it with a goal with 8:07 left.

"It's a disappointing loss," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said, "especially when you have that many chances."

The Capitals are 0-2 since John Kordic was taken out of the lineup to begin treatment for alcohol abuse. In those two games, at least, his absence has not been a factor. The Flames exploded and the Capitals disintegrated so quickly in the second period that changing the pace of the game with an altercation might not have done much. Against the Canucks, the Capitals led a relatively mild-mannered game, so a fight to change the tempo was unnecessary.

"Every game dictates how you have to play," goalie Don Beaupre said. "Some games have a lot of hitting and you have to take a lot of penalties. This wasn't a game where you think you've got to run everybody. You've just got to play solid and take your man."

Still, when things aren't going as smoothly as a team likes, it can draw confidence from such situations.

"It gets you thinking you're accomplishing something if you're making lots of hits, making something happen even if it's not offensive or defensive," Beaupre said. "If you can dominate one part of the game, you can sometimes build off of it."

Capitals Notes: Left wing Dimitri Khristich suffered a hip pointer in the second period against Vancouver and could not return to the game. His status is questionable for Monday's game. If Khristich cannot play, Alfie Turcotte (the lone extra forward) probably would go into the lineup and center the fourth line, with Dave Tippett moving to left wing on another line. . . . Ridley now has at least one point in 10 straight games. . . . Ciccarelli's goal gave him the team lead with 19. John Druce (who has 18) had held that spot for most of the season, despite scoring just three goals since Dec. 1.