The Washington Capitals traded goals in bunches with the New Jersey Devils tonight. But fighting the effects of playing their fourth game in six nights, the Capitals could not keep pace with a more potent opponent. They blew a pair of two-goal leads, battled back in a wild second period--when the teams combined for six goals--but lost, 5-4, at Continental Airlines Arena.

Backup goalie Craig Billington played splendidly, dominating the first 30 minutes. The line of Chris Simon, Adam Oates and Ulf Dahlen was terrific, despite playing just its second game together. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar recorded his first two-goal game of the season. All were positive signs, but none was enough for a victory.

"New Jersey has a great hockey team here and we're a young team, but we've proved we can play with the best teams in the league," Simon said. "But getting a 3-1 lead early in the game, we should not have let that slip away. We made some mistakes, and we've got to learn from those mistakes."

The Capitals (12-14-5) managed just four shots in the first period but still took the lead. Simon checked Sheldon Souray off the puck and headed to the net, where he scored 10 minutes 11 seconds into the game on Washington's first shot.

The Capitals stretched the lead to 2-0 about three minutes into the second period when Simon and Dahlen outmuscled former Capital Scott Stevens around the net and fed Gonchar for a power-play goal. New Jersey rookie John Madden scored the first of his two goals less than two minutes later, and the Devils showed their first glimpse of a quick-strike offense.

"They had more gas in the tank than we did," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "The schedule had as much of an effect as anything else."

The Capitals continued to attack and play powerful hockey along the boards against their much bigger opponent. Steve Konowalchuk and Richard Zednik knocked rugged defenseman Ken Daneyko off the puck behind the net, and Konowalchuk slipped a cross-crease pass to Jeff Halpern. The rookie, who graduated from nearby Princeton in the spring, made it 3-1 with his fourth NHL goal 12:32 into the second period.

Then the Capitals self-destructed, and the Devils turned it on.

Brendan Witt took a four-minute penalty for high-sticking, and Patrik Elias made it 3-2 after two highlight-reel saves by Billington, who was playing for the first time since Nov. 27. The game was turning from moment to moment. It only got worse for Washington. The Capitals' bench was assessed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct--giving the Devils a two-man advantage for nearly two minutes. Claude Lemieux tied the game on that power play with 2:51 left in the second period--the puck smacked off the end boards and he popped it over the line.

Wilson went back to his big line with the score tied, and it delivered, making it 4-3 just 69 seconds later. Oates, in his 998th NHL game, fed Simon for a wrist shot, and Gonchar sent the rebound off New Jersey forward Sergei Brylin's stick and between backup goalie Chris Terreri's legs. Oates's line looked unstoppable. It has set up or scored six of the Capitals' seven goals since being assembled. It combined for seven points tonight, duplicating its seven-point effort from Friday night; Oates has 21 points in his last 18 games.

The Capitals headed to the second intermission an enthused bunch. Their scrappiness produced another timely goal, but they would not score again. Madden scored his second goal of the game less than four minutes into the third period, and the score was tied at 4. A mere 66 seconds after that, Petr Sykora knocked the puck away from defenseman Joe Reekie and Elias got his second goal, finishing a tic-tac-toe passing play that left Billington (38 saves) sprawled out. New Jersey led for the first, and last, time.

Capitals Notes: Forwards Jan Bulis (groin) and Peter Bondra (knee) missed the game, but are expected to play this week. . . . The Capitals completed their fourth set of back-to-back games, now 5-1-2 in those contests. . . . They yielded two power-play goals in game for the first time since Oct. 16, a 3-2 loss to San Jose. . . . The Capitals will hold their skills competition Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. at MCI Center. Tickets are $2 with proceeds going to D.C. Children's Hospital and youth hockey programs.