The Washington Capitals, fresh off beating the New York Islanders on Tuesday night, have just started a stretch of games that should see the Caps cash in on across-the-board improvement and climb significantly in the NHL standings.

The Washington Wizards, fresh off losses to the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers, are in the midst of a West Coast road trip that probably will drop them to such depths they'll need a periscope to see land.

In the holiday spirit of kindness, let's deal first with the good news, which is confined at the moment to the Capitals. Their 10-11-5 record and third-place status in the NHL's Southeast Division doesn't suggest much, but there are legitimate indications the Capitals are over their slow start and in position to make a run that will get them beyond .500. The Capitals lead the NHL in hits, they lead the league in faceoff percentage, they are a shockingly high fifth in shots taken, and fourth in penalty killing. But as Coach Ron Wilson said Tuesday night: "We're really the best penalty killing team in the league because we got off to a disastrous start, and now we're perfect. We've really been on a roll the last six weeks, in terms of the way we're playing. We've been there every night, every period."

So why hasn't all this great defense, improved special teams and increased shooting resulted in more wins?

The Capitals' shots don't actually go into the net. The Capitals can do everything except score. Therefore, they struggle to win games they dominate. "We do lack finishers, guys who have the natural ability to put it away," Wilson said. "We have a lot of hardworking guys; we just don't have as much firepower as some teams."

Night after night, the Capitals produce these clever plays that present myriad scoring chances, yet they don't score. When Sergei Gonchar scored a key goal in Tuesday night's 4-2 victory over the Islanders, it was only the eighth goal by a Capitals defenseman this season. Gonchar, by himself, had 21 goals in his last 40 games last season. And now that Peter Bondra is out for at least two weeks following knee surgery, it's anybody's guess as to how the Capitals will score.

It's a dilemma that has tested Wilson's creativity. The way the game is played now, goaltenders are wallowing on the ice much of the time, taking away the low shots. "Nobody wants to shoot high in practice because that might hurt your goalie," Wilson said. So he has removed the goalie for one specific drill. In the goalie's place, the Capitals pile old tires that have been cut in half. Players have to shoot at the tires, which produce a rebound chance right in front. To score, "you have to put it upstairs," Wilson said.

So can't the Capitals just go out right now and buy a goal-scorer, or trade for one in mid-winter in one of those absurd NHL swaps in which a team going nowhere deals a 500-goal scorer for four minor leaguers? Probably not. Goal scorers are like quarterbacks and starting pitchers; there aren't enough to go around. For various reasons, the Capitals did not go after the likes of Pat Verbeek before the season began (he was thought to be too old and slow). If they're lucky, maybe the Caps can pick up a guy like Robert Reichel, the Czech Republic free agent who is hanging out in Europe now but should be available for the stretch run.

But the Caps, even as currently constituted, should be able to find enough scoring to win big during the next few weeks.

Of their next 15 games, 13 are against teams unlikely to make the playoffs, including the likes of expansion Atlanta, pitiful Chicago, and injury-riddled Montreal. This is the time to pick up standings points. "Granted, it's only December," Olaf Kolzig said, "but we need to start winning. It's a good time to get a streak going, to establish ourselves. That doesn't mean it will be easy; it won't."

Kolzig is at the zero-tolerance stage fairly early in the season, which he made clear to all a week or so ago when he forcefully asked the players to be more responsible. It was a good move. The Capitals need a push. "I just don't want us not to take that next step," he said. "I felt I had to say something."

The Capitals seem to sense they're on the verge of making this a good season, which is part of the reason Wilson and Kolzig, among others, are so intensely trying anything to get the team over the hump now.

The Wizards, on the other hand, are not only not near the hump, they can't even see it. They've lost five consecutive games and nobody would seriously suggest the Wizards will win at Phoenix on Thursday or at San Antonio on Saturday.

The sad thing about the Wizards having played so well, relatively speaking, against the Jazz and the Lakers is this: If they played as hard as they did Tuesday night against the Clippers, Nets, Raptors, Magic, and Celtics, the Wizards wouldn't be headed toward 5-18, which is what they probably will be after Utah visits MCI Center on Dec. 14. When they're willing, they're not able, as we've seen early in this road trip. On the nights the Wizards should be able to win, they don't seem willing to put forth the necessary effort.

Mitch Richmond's improved health has a lot to do with the team being more competitive in recent games, but if you're 15 games under .500 at Christmas, the season might as well be over. The fans know that, which is why they boo the team so unmercifully at times during home games. That doesn't go unnoticed. Just three years ago, players and their agents were calling Wes Unseld, asking to come and play with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. Now, some players who soon will be free agents are hearing the Wizards are booed at home and telling their agents they don't want to play in Washington.

Abe Pollin hasn't offered any suggestions to reverse his team's woes; and he says he'll be around 10 to 15 more years as the team's owner. That's a long time even for Abe to have to watch this team. Unseld's offseason moves have not panned out so far. Season ticket holders wonder if the losing will ever end.

One tenant of MCI Center has hope and a healthy attitude about its immediate future; the other is wandering aimlessly from one game to the next. It's not difficult to tell which is which.

Join Michael Wilbon online at 2 p.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com for "The Tony and Mike Show."