There is no better time than the present for the Washington Capitals to begin winning hockey games away from MCI Center. The Capitals play tonight in Atlanta, their first game against the expansion team and the first of five straight games on the road.

The Capitals are the NHL's second-worst road team and will not play at home again until Dec. 27. They are in a vital stretch of 10 straight games against Eastern Conference opponents, having gone 2-4-1 in the first seven, with both victories against the New York Islanders, the worst team in the league. They are also in a run of 13 of 15 games against teams that would not make the playoffs if they started today. The Capitals play the Thrashers--the team with the NHL's worst goals-against average and second-fewest goals scored (four fewer than Washington)--four times in the next five weeks. These are must-win games: Seven Eastern Conference teams will miss the playoffs, and every team except the Islanders has a legitimate shot at the postseason.

"We need wins anywhere we can get them," goaltender Olie Kolzig said. "If we want to keep pace with Florida and Carolina, then we have to win. If we want to get in the playoffs this year and be a force, then we have to win on the road."

After tonight's game, the Capitals play back-to-back games against the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, then play back-to-back games against the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks next week before the Christmas break. The Capitals are 3-9-1 on the road this season. Only Atlanta has fewer points on the road. Washington has not won consecutive games on the road and has a paltry 26 goals in 13 road games, while surrendering 39. They were held to two goals or fewer in nine of their last 11 games away from home.

"We have to win on the road, we have to," Coach Ron Wilson said. "If we want to do anything this season, we have to start winning on the road. [And] it doesn't make it any easier to win on the road when we aren't scoring. The margin for error is zero; if you make a mistake, you lose."

The Capitals bring a 120-minute 15-second goal-less slump into tonight's game. They have not scored a non-empty net goal in 137:45. The franchise record for the longest scoring slump is 181:15, set over four games in 1989. These Capitals have scored just 18 goals in the last 10 games.

"We have to find a way to put the puck in the net," forward Ulf Dahlen said. "Hopefully we can work hard enough to get some ugly ones, but it's not going to come by itself. We can't sit around and wait for the puck to start going into the net. We have to crash the net harder. We have to work harder."

Half the team is mired in lengthy scoring slumps. Key contributors Peter Bondra and Chris Simon have been out with injuries. Forwards Adam Oates, Richard Zednik and Steve Konowalchuk have picked up points lately, but they are getting little help. Jan Bulis does not have a point in eight games (one goal in 13). Andrei Nikolishin is point-less is nine games. Yogi Svejkovsky is without a point in 13 games (15 without a goal). Dahlen's slump is at seven games. Defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Dmitri Mironov, Calle Johansson, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt have combined for four goals in their last 109 combined man-games played.

"It's frustrating," Klee said. "It might not be my job to score goals, but if at the end of the night we score no goals everybody has to take some responsibility. Whether you're an offensive guy or a defensive guy, we need someone to step up and get a goal. We need everybody to try to step up and score, not just our so-called goal scorers."

Capitals Notes: Wilson said he was pleased with what he saw from defenseman Joe Reekie (bruised foot) in practice and will make a game-time decision tonight on whether he can play. Simon, who missed six games with a sprained neck, will return tonight. Bondra (knee) should be back next week. . . .

Wilson has reunited Bulis with Zednik and Konowalchuk. Oates, who missed practice to get some dental work done, is centering Dahlen and struggling Svejkovsky. . . . Mironov missed practice with bumps and bruises but Wilson said he will play tonight. . . .

Wilson shaved his goatee after Monday's 1-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens for superstitious reasons. "It was bad luck," Wilson said.