Thirty minutes after most of the Washington Capitals had finished practice yesterday, seven players -- the fourth line, the last defensive pair and forwards Jeff Halpern and Mike Eagles -- remained on the ice, sweating away with the assistant coaches. The scene was hardly unusual. What was unusual was some of the new participants in the ritual.

Jan Bulis, who started the season terrifically and is being groomed to be a top center, was working overtime after being demoted to the fourth line with journeyman Glen Metropolit and winger Yogi Svejkovsky -- a highly touted youngster who has struggled mightily this season. Sergei Gonchar, expected to feed off last season and become one of the premier defensemen in the league, was also getting extra work -- he is mired in a season-long funk and only his rookie partner, Alexei Tezikov, is playing fewer minutes among the defensemen.

None of the players will get much playing time tonight when the Capitals (9-10-5) face the Florida Panthers in a key divisional game. The Panthers lead the Southeast Division and held off Washington, 4-3, on opening night. Bulis, Svejkovsky and Gonchar played key roles in that game. It's highly unlikely they will do so tonight.

"Bulis seems to be in a little bit of a funk, and other people are playing [well] and that's the way I have to operate," Coach Ron Wilson said. "What's best for the team is not always what's best for the individual. Sometimes I wonder if people understand that -- I'm not saying Bulis -- but we've got other guys complaining about ice time when this is about being accountable and responsible.

"We put people in a position to help win games, not to help guys with statistics or to get him out of a funk. I don't have time for that any more. If you play 25 games and you're still not on top of your game, at what point do you keep on going to the well with some people?"

Bulis still is second on the team with seven goals, but he has just one goal in the past 12 games (he missed three of those with injuries) and has repeatedly been on the ice when the opposition scores. Bulis said his rib muscle kept him from accelerating as he normally would the past two games, but realizes he's not playing well enough to stay with a top line.

Wilson plans to give more ice time to the spunky combination of Halpern, James Black and Joe Sacco, while top center Adam Oates remains between Steve Konowalchuk and Richard Zednik -- Bulis's wingers for the first 22 games of the season. Andrei Nikolishin is now centering Peter Bondra.

"I had some rough games and that's what happens," Bulis said of his demotion. "I have to find a way to get back in. I'm probably only playing seven or eight minutes [tonight], and I have to play great and not get scored against and try to get it back again."

Gonchar and Svejkovsky are just trying to get it.

Svejkovsky scored opening night, but has no goals in the past 23 games. He missed eight of those with injuries -- injuries continue to dog him -- and was a frequent healthy scratch. The coaches want him to pay more of a price to score goals, leaving the perimeter to drive hard to the crease. Gonchar was second among all defensemen with 21 goals last season, but has just five assists this season. He has struggled defensively too, turning the puck over and making poor decisions. He began the season playing more than 25 minutes a game but is now down to about 15 minutes.

Better, and longer, work in practice will provide the best chance for all of them to earn more minutes and reclaim their old roles.

"It's funny how it comes back to you when you practice hard," Wilson said. "If you take it easy in practice and think I'm supposed to get ice time just to get out of a funk, it doesn't work that way for anybody. It's about working hard in practice and it's about winning. . . . If other people play better and it helps us win games, then they're going to play."

Capitals Notes: Wilson said he expects Joe Reekie (bruised foot) to begin skating today but is unsure when the defenseman will play.

Capitals at Florida Panthers

* Time: 7:30 p.m.

* Where: National Car Rental Center.

* Radio: WTEM-980.

* Records: Capitals 9-10-5, 24 points; Panthers 13-9-2, 30 points.

* Goalies: Capitals' Olaf Kolzig (6-9-5, 3.00 GAA) vs. Panthers' Trevor Kidd (11-3-2, 2.00).

* Injuries: Capitals D Joe Reekie (bruised foot) and Chris Simon (neck sprain) are out. Panthers report no injuries.