Washington Capitals Coach Ron Wilson wasn't sure this day would come. After his team went 2-6-2 in the first month, Wilson is elated the Capitals are 17-17-7 at the midpoint of the season, in line for a playoff spot and coming off a comeback overtime victory at New Jersey Friday night against the Eastern Conference's premier team.

"After the first month I didn't ever think we'd get back to .500, to be honest with you," Wilson said.

Several elements have led to the Capitals' revival: good health, strong goaltending, improved special teams play and especially renewed emphasis on team defense. The Capitals were outscored 36-23 in October, allowing more than three goals in five of the 10 games. They have yielded more than three goals just five times since, a span of 31 games, and have allowed more than two goals just once in the last eight games. During that stretch they have gone 5-1-2, bringing a season-high three-game winning streak into this afternoon's game against Ottawa.

"Obviously, defense is important for us, especially because we're not scoring a whole lot of goals," checking winger Joe Sacco said. "I think that's the key to our success lately. We really could go nowhere but up after October. We've really focused on defensive play."

In the NHL, teams no longer win playing wide-open hockey; scoring around the league flirts with all-time lows. With few proven goal scorers, the Capitals must limit how many they allow. Over the last 20 games they have given up just 48 goals, 17 of which came in a three-game meltdown against New Jersey, Edmonton and Vancouver. They allowed only 31 goals in the other 17 games.

Tied for second in the NHL with four shutouts, the Capitals have moved from near the bottom of the NHL to 13th in goals-against average and aim to crack the top 10.

"I think we're getting pretty close to that," Wilson said. "If you discount the first month we'd probably be in the top five defensively. . . . You have to play sound defense. The system we've put in place seems to have made us a better team--we're getting more shots, fewer shots against."

Credit must be spread among the goaltenders, defensemen and forwards, all of whom carry defensive responsibilities. The team has killed 124 of 135 power plays (92 percent) over the last 35 games, rising from last in the NHL to fourth, aiding the defensive effort. Starting goalie Olaf Kolzig, the team's lone all-star representative, also has shined.

Kolzig took the brunt of the team's October struggles, playing well but facing countless odd-man rushes, the result of frequent defensive breakdowns and turnovers. He was 2-5-2, with a 3.50 goals-against average and .878 save percentage, through little fault of his own.

"If that was me last year I probably would have had a stroke and my house would have been destroyed," Kolzig said. "I've learned to deal with that a lot better this year. The guys in front of me have been playing great and I've given the guys a chance to win, and as a result my numbers have benefited."

Since October, Kolzig is 12-9-5, with a 2.15 GAA and .921 save percentage. He has managed to raise his season totals to 14-14-7, 2.51, .902. The entire team has stepped it up when it matters most: Washington is 16-10-2 against conference foes, averaging nearly three goals per game and yielding just 2.35. They have become a different team.

"We really struggled at the beginning," Kolzig said. "We were trying to play run-and-gun hockey with teams that have the horses to play run-and-gun hockey. We're more of a defensive, hard-hitting team. We had to find our identity. Right now, I like what I'm seeing."

Capitals Notes: Leading scorer Peter Bondra (sprained knee) skated alone again yesterday and hopes to practice with the team Tuesday, something he hasn't done since leaving a game Jan. 4. . . . Washington after 41 games this season: 17-17-7, 106 goals, 109 goals allowed. Last season: 16-22-3, 95 goals, 105 allowed.