As the Washington Capitals' plane took off into the crisp Vancouver midnight sky nearly a month ago, the players drifted to the front rows, away from coaches, away from management. In the five hours that followed a dismal 6-3 loss to the lowly Canucks, the Capitals ate and drank and most importantly, talked about their stumbles and the strong team they could be.

Players spoke openly and honestly about their performance and the performance of others. As Dec. 22 turned into Dec. 23, the Capitals formed a bond and vowed to turn their season around. Since then, they have raised their record to 20-17-7, losing just once since the game against Vancouver for an 8-1-2 record in their past 11 games. They take a six-game winning streak into Saturday's game in Toronto, and have risen to the sixth playoff seed.

"Even though we got killed in Edmonton and killed in Vancouver, the flight home really brought us closer together," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "We had three days off around Christmas and we came back with a whole new outlook and a great attitude.

"Every time [people] were ready to get excited about this team we would find a way to break people's hearts, and I think the guys just realized [we needed to] put something together and make people proud of the Caps and make them cheer for the Caps. And the guys have been phenomenal--since then we've won every way imaginable."

The Capitals have excelled against some of the top competition in the NHL, playing consistent hockey at both ends of the rink. The defense is tighter, the offense has picked up, a once inept power play has seven goals in the past 11 games and the penalty killing remains among the best in hockey, going 135 for 148 over the past 38 games. All the players are contributing in one way or another, just as they did on the plane. No one has forgotten what was said.

"Everyone threw their ideas out there," defenseman Brendan Witt said. ". . . I think everyone cares about each other on this team and everyone wants to win as much as the guy sitting beside you in the dressing room. And that's the key--everyone had to have that winning attitude and go out and compete every night."

The Capitals entered Christmas a woeful 5-13-1 on the road; on Saturday they will finish a stretch of six of their last eight games away from MCI Center with renewed confidence. They have won four straight road games--their longest such streak since Nov. 1997--beating elite teams such as New Jersey and Florida, the NHL's top two home teams. They are 19-10-2 against Eastern Conference teams, a record vital to their playoff hopes.

They have become a better team in every facet of the game. Kolzig has been nearly unbeatable. The team defense has allowed just 18 goals in the 11 games since Christmas. Washington has scored 32 goals in that span, even though leading goal scorer Peter Bondra has missed 15 of the past 19 games with injuries. All four lines are chipping in, taking turns carrying the offense--the Capitals are 11-8-3 since Bondra last scored (Nov. 27) and 9-6 without him in the lineup.

There are less tangible changes as well. Practices are filled with chatter and laughs. When an opponent tries to push around a teammate, several Capitals, however big or small, rush to get involved. For the first time all season, the coaches aren't the first ones to stand up and chide someone for poor play. Leaders are emerging every day.

The cross-country flight served a purpose.

"The talk is all positive on the bench right now," Coach Ron Wilson said. "And if someone doesn't follow the plan, the players are managing the situation now, which is good. That's what you strive for as a coach--the players believe in everything and self-manage. It's been hard for us to get the team to talk to one another, and a night like that after being embarrassed two nights in a row can do it. . . .

"We preached all season long what we have to do, and sometimes getting smacked like we did by two teams that aren't as good as we are and giving up 12 goals can prompt guys to change things. That was embarrassing for a lot of guys, and I'm glad since Christmas they've been committed."

Capitals Notes: The Capitals claimed enforcer Jim McKenzie off waivers from Anaheim. McKenzie will add toughness and give them another willing fighter to complement Brendan Witt and Chris Simon, both of whom have valuable roles with the team and can ill afford to spend much time in the penalty box. . . . Bondra has skated alone this week and flew to Florida tonight to practice with the team. He may be able to play Saturday in Toronto for the first time since leaving a game Jan. 4 with a sprained knee. . . . Forward Barrie Moore was returned to Portland.

CAPTION: "The talk is all positive on the bench right now," Coach Ron Wilson said. Caps are 8-1-2 in last 11 games.

CAPTION: Goalie Olaf Kolzig leads Caps defense, which has allowed just 18 goals in last 11 games.