While the Washington Capitals were battling in tight games--searching for ways to score more goals and allow fewer--defenseman Joe Reekie was riding a stationary bike, hobbling around on one leg and driving the training staff crazy.

Not being able to play ate away at Reekie, who has avoided serious injury for much of his 15-year pro career. Days felt like weeks; weeks felt like months. His badly bruised foot, suffered from blocking a shot Oct. 31, healed slowly. Finally, after a week of strong workouts and practices, Reekie slid back into the lineup for Wednesday night's 4-0 victory in Atlanta. After missing 16 of the previous 18 games he hopes to stick around a while. He will be in the lineup here Friday night, facing the suddenly resurgent Rangers, who are on a 4-0-1 run.

"I haven't had anything like this happen to me before, and it was very frustrating," Reekie said. "It's been hard not to play. I got sick of watching games. . . . The biggest thing was just trying to keep busy. I was working every day with Frank Costello, our strength coach, and he's probably more sick of me than anyone else right now.

"You just work hard and try to stay mentally focused, and the hardest thing is just being away from the game and the guys. This is your second family, and you just want to be out there helping them."

Reekie's return could be vital, as he would give the Capitals three quality defensive pairs and restore what had been the team's top pair over the past few seasons. Sergei Gonchar, Reekie's partner, had a disappointing start and struggled with recently demoted Alexei Tezikov. Reekie, 34, played just 10 minutes Wednesday night but finished the game plus-two (he's been a plus player 11 straight seasons). On two of Reekie's 14 shifts Gonchar set up goals, notching his first two-point game of the season.

"Getting Joe back is going to help Gonch the most," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Joe is so reliable defensively, it sort of takes the shackles off Gonch a little bit when he goes out there with a partner he really trusts. He knows that if he dives into the play offensively Joe is there, and Joe is more than likely to save the day."

The Capitals' biggest problem lately has been putting the puck in the net. Reekie won't help much there--he has 21 goals in 725 career games and none since Dec. 13, 1997. But with Reekie's return, defensemen Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt won't have to play 30 minutes a night.

In Reekie, the Capitals also have one of their top penalty killers back, easing the load of others on special teams. He should help an already dominating group of penalty killers (88 of 92 over the last 24 games) keep improving.

It's also unlikely Reekie will make the kind of youthful mistakes that the Tezikov did. Tezikov, 21, has great offensive instincts and a promising future. But he made critical blunders that often led directly to goals, such as a turnover behind the net last week in Pittsburgh that triggered the Penguins' game-winning goal.

"Joe doesn't make that mistake," assistant coach Tim Army said. "That's where you really feel his absence and his well-roundedness as a player--his ability to read things defensively. It has a big effect. Recently it would have been nice to have his stabilizing effect in our lineup.

"Sometimes you can overcome that in the short term and hide the fact you lost a key person for five to 10 games, but it has a severe long-term effect. That's why you have a Joe Reekie, because young players in the organization aren't yet ready to do what he does over 82 games."

Reekie also brings a much-needed vocal dimension to the dressing room. The Capitals have a quiet team with leaders such as Craig Berube and Mark Tinordi no longer around. Their captains--Adam Oates, Andrei Nikolishin, Peter Bondra and Johansson--lead by example. Reekie's intensity and gift of gab add necessary elements to the mix.

"No, we didn't miss him; most of the time you just want to tell him to shut up," Oates said. "But seriously, he does add a certain part to our locker room, especially vocally. Sure, we missed him. It's good to have him back."

Capitals at New York Rangers

* Where: Madison Square Garden.

* Time: 7:30 p.m.

* TV: HTS.

* Radio: WTEM-980.

* Records: Capitals 11-13-5, 28 points; Rangers 11-14-4, 27 points.

* Goalies: Capitals' Olaf Kolzig (8-12-5, 2.72) vs. Rangers' Mike Richter (7-11-4, 2.61).

* Injuries: Capitals--RW Peter Bondra (knee surgery) is out. Rangers--D Brian Leetch (fractured forearm) and LW Valeri Kamensky (arm) are out.

CAPTION: Defenseman Joe Reekie, left, is back in Caps' lineup after missing 16 of 18 games before Wednesday with injury.