There still is abundant snow on the ground. January has not yet come to a close. More than 30 games remain to be played. But already the schedule-watching has begun. The Eastern Conference playoff scene changes by the day, and likely will continue to do so to the end of the season.

As the Washington Capitals extended their unbeaten streak to an NHL season-high 10 games with a last-second 3-2 overtime victory over Phoenix last night, heads inevitably turned to the out-of-town scores at MCI Center. The Capitals have surged from the 10th playoff spot to the sixth seed. Less than two weeks ago it seemed Florida was running away with the Southeast Division, but the Capitals have cut the Panthers' lead to eight points, with one game in hand and with Florida still set to make two appearances in Washington.

Winning the division would ensure at least the third seed in the conference and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"Eight points sounds like a lot more points than it actually is," left wing Steve Konowalchuk said. "One team wins two, three in row and the other loses two or three in a row and you're right there. There's still a lot of hockey to be played, but we're pretty excited. The main thing is we just have to keep playing well. Things will work out.

"I think a lot of teams are looking right now, it's so tight. If you lose a few you can fall back and if you win a few you can move up near one of the top spots. We definitely know every game is a big two points and we're really happy with the little streak we've had--maybe it takes a little pressure off, but we're definitely watching other games and it makes it more fun, more exciting. Every game matters."

The Capitals have pulled within striking distance of teams in the fourth and fifth seeds, with Ottawa and Philadelphia going through rough stretches recently. Washington trails Ottawa by three points and is six points behind Philadelphia.

Home Improvement

The Capitals are 14-4-6 at home this season, earning 35 points. They earned 34 points at MCI Center all last season. They have earned points in 19 of their last 20 games at home and have one loss here since Nov. 11. . . . The Capitals are 11-9 in one-goal games, 13-20 last season. They are 4-11-3 when trailing after two periods, 1-34-2 last season. . . . The Capitals are 4-1-8 in overtime, with all four game-winners coming from Adam Oates and Calle Johansson, with two each. . . .

There are just 195 single seats left for Sunday's game against Philadelphia. . . . Only two NHL defensemen have more goals than Sergei Gonchar (12). . . . Forwards Mike Eagles and Jim McKenzie were healthy scratches. McKenzie, claimed on waivers from Anaheim last week, is likely to make his Capitals' debut Sunday. . . . Defenseman Brendan Witt, sporting a short buzz cut most of the season, attracted much pregame attention with his now completely bald head.