As the Washington Capitals try to climb back up the Southeast Division standings, Coach Ron Wilson is relying on fewer players in the clutch. Almost every game the team has played this season has come down to the third period, and lately Wilson has been reducing his lineup from four offensive lines to three in the final 20 minutes.

Wilson has been going to his top two lines with the game on the line and was getting great results from the line of Glen Metropolit, Adam Oates, Peter Bondra as well as the combination of Steve Konowalchuk, Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik--the club's most productive line this season. But last night Wilson benched Bulis, Metropolit and James Black in the third period, a somewhat shocking move. Bulis is second on the team in points and Metropolit has six points in five games since being recalled from minor league Portland. All three are healthy.

Wilson scoffed when asked if the trio did not play because of their defensive play earlier in the game--in which the Capitals blew a third-period lead to lose, 5-4, to New York in overtime, saying, "It had nothing to do with that." He talked in general terms about the team's collapse, which came when players pushed for offense instead of locking up the win.

"It's not everybody, it's three or four guys," Wilson said. "Some guys don't get it. We try to give people confidence and play them in situations and it's no way to build confidence when you go out and don't do the job and decide you have a better plan and it doesn't work."

Bulis, who sat on the bench smirking through the third period, declined to comment on the benching after the game. Black said he had no objections. "I have no complaints," Black said. "I'll be a cheerleader if I have to."

Eleven of the Capitals' first 15 games were decided in the third period or overtime, meaning the game-winning or game-tying goal was scored in that span. Each of the past six games was decided by two goals or less and in five of those six games the game-winning goal came in the third period or overtime.

"I've shortened my bench a lot in the last few games to make a push," Wilson said before the game. "I just see who plays well on the third and fourth line and the line that did best for us is going to play more and the guys on fourth line might only get one shift in the third period. I'm flexible, but right now games are close and I'm shortening the bench so we can get the Oates and Bulis lines out there more to get their minutes up."

The formula seemed to be working. The Capitals opened the season a dominant third-period team--outscoring the opposition 5-0 in that period over the first four games. Then they got clobbered in the late minutes, getting outscored 12-3 in the third period over the next six games. Since then the team had scored four third-period goals and allowed one, before last night's meltdown.

Injury Update

Defenseman Joe Reekie missed his fifth straight game since blocking a shot with his foot in San Jose. He won't try to skate again until Monday, Wilson said. Winger Yogi Svejkovsky (shoulder) could play Saturday, Wilson said.