Each point the Washington Capitals give away in October and November will haunt them in the spring. Each time they fail to stuff divisional rivals such as Florida and Carolina, their playoff chances suffer. Each time they blow an opportunity to lock up a game, they pay dearly for it.

Last night the Capitals had another victory in sight and dominated for all but a few minutes. In those precious minutes another win and vital points in the standings slipped away. They settled for a 3-3 tie with Carolina before 11,943 at MCI Center.

Two weeks ago they played well enough to beat Carolina, but lost. An apparent win against the New York Rangers turned into an overtime loss. Wednesday's tie with Dallas could have been a victory. Twice San Jose defeated the Capitals despite being outplayed. The Capitals let Florida sneak away with two points on opening night. A Capitals team that could easily stand above .500 sits at 6-8-4 (17 points).

When they play with the lead in the third period they find a way to hand it back; when they trail after two periods they have an uncanny knack for coming back. They had countless chances to add to a 3-2 lead in the third period, but Carolina's top line put together dominating shifts before Ron Francis fed defenseman Paul Coffey in the slot and he tied the game at 3 with about nine minutes to play. Yet another lead had slipped away. Washington owned overtime, but chances were not finished.

"I don't know what it is," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "We stuck to the game plan and they got a lucky goal. It's bad luck, but maybe we need to work on our killer touch to put teams away in the third. I thought we battled pretty hard and we got a point and we're catching up to everybody. I think we're playing really well."

There is a bright side to all of this. The Capitals hardly resemble the team that came home from a dismal West Coast trip at the start of the month. They have earned at least one point in each of their last seven home games (including one for an overtime loss) and are 5-3-3 at home (1-5-1 on the road). They finished their five-game homestand with a 4-2-2 record against playoff teams; 10 of their 11 home games have been decided by two goals or less.

"If we're playing this way we're going to win a lot of games," defenseman Ken Klee said. "We've got 11 out of 14 possible points [at home this month]. You have to be happy with that. That puts you up with top teams in the league."

Still, they wasted another fabulous effort from their second line (Steve Konowalchuk, Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik) and a supreme game from their fourth line. Rookie Jeff Halpern, a Potomac native, scored his second NHL goal and assisted on James Black's first-period goal. Ulf Dahlen earned his first point of the season and first NHL point since 1996-97.

Zednik, who scored twice Wednesday, fired through traffic 1 minute 20 seconds into the game for his fourth goal of the season, capping a stretch of three goals on seven shots after getting just one on his first 41 attempts. But Robert Kron freed a puck from Bulis, who left the game with back spasms but is expected to play tonight at Boston, and Jeff O'Neill capped a two-on-one break at the other end, tying the game five minutes later.

Washington took the lead again with about seven minutes left in the first period. Dahlen was great along the boards and Black converted an uncanny blind, backhanded pass from Halpern as he spun away from Nolan Pratt. The Hurricanes had just 11 shots through two periods and none on the power play (the Capitals have killed 48 straight, a club record). But again, one miscue would cost them. Witt rushed to Washington's blue line to challenge for the puck, got tangled up with Carolina's Sean Hill and the Hurricanes had another two-on-one break. Francis tapped the puck in, tying the game at 2.

"We had a couple of breakdowns and soft moments and teams seem to be taking advantage of those," Coach Ron Wilson said.

Thirty-seven seconds later the fourth line struck again. Carolina defenseman Marek Malik tried to catch a falling puck and misplayed it. Dahlen rolled him over; Halpern blazed to the loose puck and had a clear path to the net. He and Black put on a one-touch passing display--Halpern to Black back to Halpern--and Halpern finished it off by finding the top of the net.

Should have been good enough for two points. It wasn't.

CAPTION: Capitals' Steve Konowalchuk is called for high-sticking penalty on Glen Wesley in overtime as Adam Oates, left, and Jeff Halpern watch from bench.

CAPTION: Capitals rookie Jeff Halpern, a Potomac native, celebrates second-period goal over fallen Arturs Irbe. Halpern also assisted on James Black's goal.