A photo caption in yesterday's Sports section incorrectly identified a Washington Capitals player. The player pictured was Steve Konowalchuk. (Published 12/25/99)

As Washington Capitals defenseman Calle Johansson stood in the middle of the visitors' dressing room at GM Place in Vancouver--the sweat of Wednesday night's humbling 6-3 loss still on his body--a stream of adjectives and expletives rolled off his tongue about his team's recent play.

"It's terrible," said Johansson, the assistant team captain, with the Capitals heading into the Christmas break on a three-game losing streak that has dropped their record to 12-16-5, matching their lowest point of the season--four games below .500. "We're not a fancy team and we can't play fancy like this. We [mess] around with the puck and try to pass it three, four, five times. We can't force it and right now we are. We're not on the puck; we're always second to the puck. And we don't stop and go back for it, we circle around and take our time. I don't know where that came from. It's a [stinking] joke."

Johansson began seeing signs of trouble in the third period of a 3-2 overtime victory over the Rangers in New York on Friday. The Rangers produced the first 13 shots on goal in that period and forced goaltender Olie Kolzig to make 16 saves in the final 20 minutes before Johansson scored the winning goal. The next night, the Capitals squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-1, losing to the New Jersey Devils on two third-period goals, 5-4. Washington never was in its game against the Oilers on Tuesday night in Edmonton, losing 6-2, and the Capitals succumbed to defensive flaws against the floundering Canucks on Wednesday night.

"We didn't get away with it in New Jersey--we got away with it in New York," Johansson said. "Bad third period, bad third period. You can get away with that one, maybe two games, but it's going to catch up to you pretty [darn] soon, and we can't rely on Olie to stand on his head for us every night--it's not going to happen. We have no one to blame but ourselves. It was another poor performance [Wednesday] night."

The Capitals began this five-game, eight-day road trip with stirring victories over the Atlanta Thrashers and the Rangers. They since have fallen to 5-12-1 on the road this season and have yielded five or more goals in three consecutive games--their worst stretch of the season. They had allowed more than three goals in just one of the previous 15 games. The last time the Capitals played this poorly in their own end was October, when they yielded countless odd-man rushes and breakaways. They finished the month winless on a four-game West Coast trip and ended the month at 2-6-2.

"We're giving up too many good chances," center Jeff Halpern said. "We're not going to win games 6-5. We need to win 3-1 and 3-2. We're getting out of the system and it shows when we're giving up chances like that."

Since crawling back to .500 with a scrappy road victory over the New York Islanders on Nov. 27, Washington is 3-7-1. They are 6-26-4 against Western Conference teams over the past two seasons. They are 0-9-2 over the past two seasons against teams truly out West (Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary), with the last victory coming at Vancouver in March 1998.

"It's this West thing more than anything else," winger Steve Konowalchuk said. "We went out in the first three games [on this road trip] against teams in our conference and played well. In October it was all West teams we had a problem with, and now we've had problems with them again. I don't know what it is, if it's a mental block or something. I don't know."

However, help could be on the way. The Capitals play their next four games at home, and when they go on the road again two weeks from now, they'll face expansion Atlanta for three straight games, two away from MCI Center. The Capitals do not travel farther west than St. Louis for the duration of the season. They have the weekend off for the holiday and don't play again until Monday, when they host the struggling Chicago Blackhawks. They are hopeful key forwards Peter Bondra (knee) and Chris Simon (neck) will be back in the lineup by then.

"I guess it's a good time for the break," Coach Ron Wilson said. "You don't like to go into the break losing three in a row and giving up 17 goals, but that's the reality of it. We have to regroup and be ready to play against Chicago."

Each game is critical to their postseason hopes. They'd better improve soon: Johansson might be running out of adjectives.

CAPTION: Caps' Jeff Toms (22) controls puck during Canucks' 6-3 victory Wednesday.