The Washington Capitals have beaten up on Eastern Conference opponents this season, something integral to their playoff hopes. But their 17-10-2 record against conference foes has a nasty undercurrent, a difficulty beating Western Conference teams.

"If you had to choose, you'd want to be dominant in your conference because you play more games in conference," Coach Ron Wilson said. "You play 56 in conference and 26 in the other conference, so if we can only win six or seven games in the other conference and play dominant in our conference, we'll be all right."

The Capitals are 6-26-6 against the Western Conference over the past two seasons, including 1-7-5 this season. They have played their worst hockey of the season in California and western Canada. Yesterday's 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators was the latest in a string of impressive wins against Eastern Conference teams.

The Capitals snapped New Jersey's nine-game unbeaten streak on Friday night and are 6-2 against Ottawa, Toronto, New Jersey and Philadelphia--the top teams in the conference outside the Capitals' Southeast Division--and are 6-0 against those teams at MCI Center. The Capitals have 40 games remaining, 31 in conference.

Conference games provide key four-point swings in the standings and vital points toward playoff-seed tiebreakers. It's unlikely that the Capitals will catch division-leading Florida--they trail the Panthers by 14 points--so they will have to defeat conference opponents for one of the five spots not reserved for division winners. Only New Jersey has more wins in the conference (21) and Washington is 10-2-2 against Eastern teams at MCI Center.

Another Healthy Scratch

Against the Senators, winger Yogi Svejkovsky was scratched for the sixth time in seven games. . . . Defenseman Jamie Huscroft returned to Portland and minor league journeyman forward Barrie Moore was recalled as a reward for his strong play. The Capitals play three games in four days on their upcoming road trip and might need extra bodies. Portland already has 24 wins; Washington's farm team won just 23 games last season. . . . The Capitals are 9-8 in one-goal games; they were 13-20 in one-goal games last season.