It took just 74 explosive seconds, just two potent shifts, for the Washington Capitals to put away the expansion Atlanta Thrashers tonight and earn two important standings points. The Capitals' 5-2 victory at Philips Arena made them 2-1 in this three-game set with Atlanta and tied them with Buffalo and Boston for the final playoff seed.

The Capitals, the last NHL team to play 40 games this season, have played two fewer games than the Sabres, three fewer than the Bruins and three fewer games than Carolina--the seventh-seeded team two points ahead of Washington.

The Capitals are 16-17-7 (40 points) and could reach .500 for the first time since Nov. 27 on Friday at New Jersey, reaching the season's midpoint. The Capitals also will vie for their first three-game winning streak this season. They are 0-3 after winning consecutive games; their last chance for a three-game winning streak was Dec. 18 at New Jersey.

"We want to get over the .500 mark," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "We've been hovering right around it and to get over it and start climbing the standings is our main goal. . . . We've got to put in a heck of an effort Friday because we've got a solid schedule and the next two, three weeks is when we make up our games in hand. Most of those are on the road and we need to start chipping away."

The Capitals, 6-13-1 on the road and 15-10-2 against Eastern Conference opponents, have one loss in their last seven games. They showed little spunk early on tonight. The Thrashers pressured the defense into mistakes--Kolzig darted to the top of the right face-off circle to deny Patrik Stefan's breakaway--and led quickly. Former Capital Andrew Brunette scored on a scramble in the crease when Kolzig accidentally knocked in the puck.

The Capitals gradually improved, reached a high point in the final five minutes of the first period, but didn't finish off the Thrashers until the final minutes. Sergei Gonchar tied the game about 15 minutes in, nailing the puck from the point between the legs of a leaping Chris Simon and into the net, mimicking a goal he scored here last week. Gonchar failed to score in his first 20 games but has eight goals in his last 15 games, five goals in the last three games.

Twenty-two seconds later Richard Zednik fed Bulis and his attempted pass caromed off Atlanta defenseman Dean Sylvester's stick and in. Bulis scored for the first time since Dec. 15 (seven games) and snapped a stretch of one goal in 19 games. Sixty-two seconds after that, Ken Klee kept a puck in at the blue line and wristed it toward the net. Mike Eagles deflected it for his second goal in as many games; he had none in his previous 12. Three goals in 1 minute 24 seconds; a 3-1 lead. Andrei Nikolishin and Simon (second on the team with 10 goals) scored later.

"When you have as many games in hand as we do, it doesn't matter who you're playing. The points are important," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "I really liked our effort. The guys stood up for each other and we played a great team game."

Capitals Notes: Winger Yogi Svejkovsky was scratched for the fourth time in five games; tough veteran defenseman Jamie Huscroft, recently recalled from Portland, skated on the fourth line. . . .

Wilson and assistant Tim Army both were behind the bench for their 500th NHL game. Wilson coached his 204th game with Washington, tying Tom McVie for fourth in franchise history. . . .

The Capitals are holding scouting meetings in Atlanta. Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield happened to walk by their conference room, General Manager George McPhee invited him in and Holyfield stayed nearly an hour, giving a motivational talk and posing for a group picture. . . .

Community relations mainstay Yvon Labre officially retired from the team Dec. 31 to pursue business interests.

Sources said the team will honor the former player this season and he will continue to work with the Capitals' alumni.