A year ago, the Washington Capitals won their first four games, fought their way through some rough spots in December and January and finished with 98 points, the second-best total in the National Hockey League.

After four games this season, the Capitals are 1-3 and, while there is no reason for panic, there are a couple of reversed circumstances that have created an uncomfortable feeling.

Except for a disabling knee injury to Randy Burridge in March, the Capitals were relatively free of injuries last year. Right now, five players are out of action, three with broken bones.

Last season, Washington won its first nine games against Patrick Division opponents and finished 22-12-1, matching Vancouver for the best intradivisional record in the NHL. This time, the Capitals have lost all three meetings against Patrick teams, two of them on home ice.

"Divisional play determines your season," said Coach Terry Murray, working as usual at Piney Orchard yesterday while the healthy players took a day off. "Those are 37 times you have to play well if you're going to finish high in the standings and have confidence going into the playoffs."

The third straight Patrick loss, 4-2 in New Jersey Monday, added a fifth name to the burgeoning injury list, with defenseman Jason Woolley suffering a fractured left wrist while trying to ease his fall in a four-man second-period pileup.

The wrist was put in a cast yesterday and Woolley will be out indefinitely, as are Burridge (knee surgery), defenseman Sylvain Cote (fractured hand) and forward Dimitri Khristich (broken foot). Center Michal Pivonka (groin muscle pull) will miss the weekend home games against Ottawa and Buffalo.

To fill in for Woolley, the Capitals yesterday promoted defenseman Shawn Anderson, who had one goal in three games with Baltimore. Anderson, 24, played in Germany last season, following NHL tours with Buffalo and Quebec.

"The injuries are a factor in our performance," Murray said. "Last year, we were relatively injury free all season, and if you can keep your key guys you're pretty certain to be successful. Right now, we're missing four important players plus Jason Woolley, who had been fitting right in, doing a good job in the four or five spot."

This is the first time the NHL has gone to an 84-game regular season and Murray joked: "Maybe our mindset is on an 80-game season."

Asked if the longer campaign might be inducing a psychological hangup in some players, Murray said: "It's a possibility. From the first years {General Manager David Poile} came here, we've tried to focus on 10-game segments because of the long regular season. We were the first team to do that.

"After the terrific year last year, there had to be some thoughts coming into training camp that we could cruise into the playoffs. But there's urgency in the regular season. Two teams in the Patrick Division will be watching everybody else at the end and they're not going to be happy teams."

Murray felt there were two turning points Monday night. First was Washington's failure to convert a five-on-three power play with the game scoreless. Second was Kevin Todd's goal two seconds after the expiration of a five-minute penalty to Bob Carpenter, giving the Devils a 2-0 lead.

"If we'd scored on that five-on-three, it probably would have been a different game," Murray said. "The power play was very successful last year, tops in the league almost the entire season. But right now it's not going. There are some key guys out and other teams are more aware of us. We have to adjust and go to other options.

"The penalty killing {second in the NHL} has been good. We had a big kill on the five-minute penalty to Carpenter, we do a lot of good things and put in a lot of effort, then they score two seconds after {Peter} Bondra steps on the ice. That really hurt."