Something happens to the Washington Capitals in the second period. Passes no longer click. They hand the puck away. The breaks don't go their way. They let games slip away. Such was the case last night--the Capitals blew a lead, allowing two quick goals by the New Jersey Devils and getting outshot 13-2 through the first half of the second period.

Then everything changed. They regained composure and attacked one of the best teams in the league, battling for a 4-2 victory before 14,208 at MCI Center, relying primarily on just four defensemen with Sergei Gonchar and Alexei Tezikov out with minor injuries.

The Devils, a superb defensive club, seemed to have it wrapped up midway through the game. They were dominating at both ends--a barrage that began the moment the puck was dropped to start the second period and ended about 10 minutes later, when the Capitals came to life.

New Jersey assaulted the Capitals on the power play but couldn't score (Washington has killed 40 straight), and tied the game at 1 about six minutes into the period. Goalie Olaf Kolzig (32 saves) made a big kick save on a shot from the point, then Petr Sykora sent the rebound across the crease to Jason Arnott streaking in behind.

About four minutes later New Jersey scored again. Four Capitals surrounded Randy McKay in the crease but no one tied him up. McKay tapped in Scott Gomez's pass easily just as Chris Simon left the penalty box.

"We had lost momentum," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "We were sloppy in the neutral zone. They had a couple of power plays, then we got tentative."

The Capitals (6-8-2) needed a complete turnaround, and a quick one at that. It came on Dmitri Mironov's stick. Adam Oates won a draw straight back and Mironov's wrist shot squeezed past Martin Brodeur 11 minutes 22 seconds into the period for his first goal of the season to tie the game at 2. The rest of the game belonged to Washington.

"They came back on goals where we had individual mistakes," defenseman Ken Klee said. "That cost us and shifted momentum their way. But we got a big draw from Oates and Tree gets one for us and we're back at it again. It would have been easy for us to come out tonight with four 'D' and say we'll just try to keep it close. But our guys bared down."

Jeff Halpern was stopped twice by Brodeur, who entered the game 18-4-3 against the Capitals. Richard Zednik's one-timer struck Brodeur's pads. Peter Bondra darted in from the blue line, splitting the defense, but couldn't stuff the puck behind Brodeur, who got his right leg on the puck. He snatched Bondra's wrist shot from the air and got a piece of Oates's one-timer as well.

The onslaught continued in the third period. Oates unleashed a slap shot. Steve Konowalchuk crashed the net for a rebound. The Devils' steady defense was pressured into uncharacteristic turnovers.

Less than three minutes into the third period the comeback was complete. Andrei Nikolishin won a draw, Mironov pushed the puck to Klee, who fired a rising shot from the right point that was deflected, surprising Brodeur. He waved at it with his glove but the puck sailed over his left shoulder, giving Klee goals in consecutive games after failing to score in his first 13 games.

Kolzig capped another penalty kill by stoning Patrick Elias on a breakaway and James Black ended the evening with an empty-net goal, his first of the season.

They had returned to playing their system. They had survived another second-period scramble.

"We did have a little bit of a let down in the second period," forward Chris Simon said. "But tonight we played hard for most of the game. We were a little bit on our heels but Olie held us in there and played great and I think guys all around stuck to the game plan except for a few minutes there."

The Capitals were playing ugly hockey again, just the way Wilson likes it. That kind of effort resulted in the early lead. Calle Johansson fired from the point on the power play and Oates just missed deflecting the puck from a few feet out. But it rebounded back to him from the end boards and Oates turned and flipped the puck over Brodeur, who was down and out from the initial shot.

The power play, which slipped to 22nd in the league, snapped out of 0-13 and 1-18 slumps. The team emerged from something much more daunting.

Capitals Notes: Center Jan Bulis, the team's second leading scorer, missed the game with a muscle strain in his neck and is listed as day-to-day. Gonchar and Tezikov are having muscle spasms and replacement Jamie Huscroft played just six minutes. Left wing Yogi Svejkovsky returned from a shoulder injury after missing seven straight games. Defenseman Joe Reekie is still out with a bruised foot. . . . Last night's game was the 2,000th in franchise history (834-912-254).