The Washington Capitals have outplayed the rival Florida Panthers twice this season, with nothing to show for it. Wednesday night they'll get another chance with some help from new forward Terry Yake, who was claimed off waivers from St. Louis.

Yake, 31, will make his Capitals debut in a meeting of two of the hottest teams in the NHL. The Capitals and Panthers have each won five games in a row. Both teams have thrived in the conference--Washington is 18-10-2, scoring 91 goals and allowing 70, tied for the NHL lead in fewest goals allowed in-conference. The Panthers are 17-8-1 in-conference. The Capitals, currently the sixth playoff seed, trail Florida by 14 points, perhaps an insurmountable margin. Regardless, they need all the victories they can get.

"I'm a realist," Coach Ron Wilson said. "They're 14 points ahead of us and that's a tall order, to make up 14 points in 39 games. I'm not worried about catching Florida, I'm just worried about getting the points we need and making the playoffs. . . . Worrying about catching a team that's that far out front, that's fantasizing a little bit too much."

Florida is going for its 28th win--the Panthers reached 28 wins on April 12 last season. Washington lost to them opening night, 4-3, despite dominating the second half of the game. The Capitals lost 2-1 at Florida Dec. 4, despite outshooting them 31-6 over the final two periods. The Panthers have led the division all season and have yet to lose consecutive games.

"Every team has got to go through some kind of skid during the season," Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig said. "We had ours in October and we're waiting for Florida to do the same. Especially the last time we were here we definitely outplayed them. I didn't play my best game--I gave up a soft goal to Pavel Bure--and [Florida goalie] Trevor Kidd stole two points.

"But we have a lot of confidence against this team, even though we don't have the points to show for it. It's going to be a great test for us. Even though they're 14 points ahead of us, we don't feel they are that much of a better team than us."

Yake, 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds, should help. He will play with center Andrei Nikolishin Wednesday and Wilson said it's likely leading goal scorer Peter Bondra (sprained left knee) will join that duo when he returns, perhaps as soon as next week, a move the coach hopes will give the team three quality scoring lines. The all-European combination of Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis and Ulf Dahlen has netted five goals and 11 points in two games. Chris Simon, Adam Oates and Steve Konowalchuk are playing well and the fourth line--James Black, Jeff Halpern and Joe Sacco--flourishes defensively and chips in big goals, like a rare power-play score Monday in Tampa.

Yake, Hartford's third-round pick in 1987, played sparingly in five seasons with the Whalers, but scored 116 goals and 304 points in 281 minor league games in that span. He was claimed by Anaheim in the 1993 expansion draft, and, with Wilson as his coach, scored 21 goals, tops on the team, and 52 points in 1993-94. Yake butted heads with management on a new contract and was dealt to Toronto for David Sacco, Joe's brother.

"It was a deal that really didn't work out for our team [Anaheim], and it didn't work out for Terry, either," Wilson said. "I always liked him as a player, he can kill penalties, he can play on the power play, he's got a lot of skill and he's a pretty good skater. He's been up and down for a few years here and I would guess he's got a good handle on what his role is on a team now and where he fits in."

Yake played one season in Toronto and spent the next two in the minors before signing with St. Louis. He was used primarily as a fourth-line player there, with a deep group of forwards, but excelled on special teams and rare chances to skate on top lines. He will get more ice time in Washington, where goals are often hard to come by. "He can help us offensively and defensively," said Joe Sacco, who played with Yake in Anaheim. "He's a pretty good all-around player. I think he'll help us a lot."

Capitals Notes: Bure has 44 goals in 47 games as a Panther and 31 goals in 36 games this season. The Panthers are 19-1-1 when he has scored this season. . . . The Capitals' road record is 8-13-1--they will try to extend their season-high three-game road winning streak tonight.