Whenever the opportunity arises for the Washington Capitals to gain ground on teams they're chasing for playoff spots, a win becomes a tie, a tie becomes a loss. Each time they take a few steps forward, they take a leap back, never more so than when they were thoroughly embarrassed by the Atlanta Thrashers in their first of three straight games against the expansion team.

"That's the never-ending question about our team the last two years," said goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who directed an angry tirade at his teammates after Thursday's 3-1 loss. "I really don't know what the reason is."

The Capitals (14-17-7) pondered this question as they flew home from Atlanta on Thursday night, and they have a chance to find an answer tonight when they play the Thrashers again at MCI Center. But should they manage to lose again, the quandary would reach epic proportions.

In a season of ups and downs, the Capitals played solid hockey the first five games, were humiliated, 7-1, by Anaheim at home and wobbled through a six-game winless streak, culminating in a horrendous four-game trip out West. They responded with a strong run in early November, earning points in seven straight at MCI Center, and pulled back to .500 on Nov. 27, knocking off the New York Islanders with a thrilling third-period comeback (they are 5-8-3 since). The Capitals won just once in the next six tries, began a five-game road swing with two wins, then flopped in western Canada, allowing 12 goals in two games against Edmonton and Vancouver.

The pattern continued as the Capitals went undefeated in their next four games, all at home, tying a season high, and seemed to be peaking. They had pulled within two points of a playoff spot and held at least two games in hand on Carolina, Buffalo and Boston with Atlanta on the schedule three times in a row. But they responded with what may have been their weakest effort of the season.

"Some young guys have to learn that being a professional means every night showing up and taking pride in your job and your effort," Coach Ron Wilson said. "It's not just, 'I don't have it tonight so I'm not going to even bother looking for it.'

"If you lost something, it's there somewhere. If they considered it like when they lose their keys and how hard they try to find the keys to their nice car--it should be the same attitude when we have a game like that: 'I'm going to look as hard as I can to find what I lost.' It's not just, 'Uh, I'll get a ride with someone else.' "

It's likely the Capitals will have to finish this odd series without leading scorer Peter Bondra, who has not skated since leaving Tuesday's game with a sprained left knee--a knee he had ligament surgery on Dec. 5. The Capitals say the injury is not severe.

"How long it takes is usually an individual thing," Wilson said. "Some guys take longer and some guys take shorter. When it feels right he'll play. I wouldn't even venture to guess."

With or without Bondra, the Capitals have not won win more than two games in a row this season. After tonight's game they play five of six on the road, where they are a woeful 5-13-1, including games against the three division leaders--Toronto, New Jersey and Florida. Washington also has a home game against Ottawa, one of the top teams in the conference. The Capitals close this month with four straight at home, then enter February with a stretch of 11 of 15 road games.

The Capitals realize they are missing an opportunity to pick up much-needed victories now.

"We're not in a playoff spot and we looked at this series as a great chance to get back to .500 and get back into the playoff spot," defenseman Joe Reekie said. "We were going strong and then we hit a big hole in the road. . . . These are games we have to go out and win.

"You can't afford to look back and say we should have won that game. We realize that and now we have to win these next two games and to be honest. We're in no position to be giving up games. We have no excuses."

Capitals vs. Atlanta Thrashers

* Where: MCI Center.

* Time: 7 p.m.

* Tickets: Available at $20, $40, $65 and $75.

* TV: HTS.

* Radio: WWRC-570.

* Records: Capitals 14-17-7, 36 points; Thrashers 10-25-4, 27 points.

* Goalies: Capitals' Olaf Kolzig (11-14-7, 2.63 goals-against average) vs. Thrashers' Scott Fankhouser (2-2-1, 2.76).

* Injuries: Capitals RW Peter Bondra (sprained knee) is out; RW Richard Zednik (flu) and G Craig Billington (back spasms) are probable. Thrashers G Damian Rhodes (ankle sprain), RW Steve Staios (strained groin), D David Harlock (herniated disk) are out; RW Shean Donovan (abdominal strain) and LW Johan Garpenlov (sore wrist) are questionable.