The crowd at MCI Center booed during most of the Washington Capitals' 6-2 loss to Ottawa on Friday night, and Coach Bruce Cassidy said yesterday he did not blame them.

Cassidy said he will be looking for more emotion and determination from the team today when the Capitals (10-12-2) face the Thrashers (6-14-1) in Atlanta.

"I didn't see anybody get mad" on Friday, Cassidy said. "At some point you have to ask when they are going to get mad. I'm looking for some pride. Some guys are in there saying, 'Poor me.' I'd like to see a little passion.

"I mean, we're not going to play well in every game at home. No team does. But that was the fourth time already we've done that at home."

Cassidy said he did notice when center Jeff Halpern got into a fight with Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips midway through the third period. Halpern had been called for a high-sticking penalty earlier in the period.

Halpern had just 20 minutes of penalties last season.

"As a coach, you want discipline, but maybe what happened to Halpern was that he snapped," Cassidy said. "Maybe he'd had enough."

As the 60-minute practice at Piney Orchard ended yesterday, Cassidy called over several defensemen, including Calle Johansson, Alex Henry and Rick Berry. He then chastised all but Johansson and Henry for practicing poorly. Cassidy also had criticized his team after Friday's game for its lackluster practice session the previous day.

"I thought Calle and Henry outworked the young kids," Cassidy said. "These kids are 19, 22 years old, they're fighting for a roster spot, and they're getting outworked. Calle [35] has averaged 25 minutes of ice time a night and he's an old man. Well, I say he's an old man jokingly, because we're almost the same age."

The Capitals have lost five of their last seven games but could receive a boost today: Forward Dainius Zubrus has been cleared medically to play after missing the past two games with a sore right hand. The injury had made gripping a stick all but impossible. He practiced for the entire hour yesterday, and Cassidy said Zubrus will decide whether he's ready to return to action.

Zubrus, who skated with center Robert Lang and winger Peter Bondra in practice, has two goals and four assists this year and had 17 goals and 26 assists last year. And at 6 feet 4, 231 pounds, he also is Washington's most physically imposing forward.

"I'm hoping I can play," said Zubrus, who first injured his hand when he was slashed during a loss to Toronto last Tuesday. "It feels so-so. I took a [painkilling] shot so I'm hoping that will make it better, but it takes usually more than 36 hours for those to kick in, and I just had it 24 hours ago. . . . I got hit in the same place where it was fractured last year. It's not a fracture this time, fortunately, but it's still sore."

Said Cassidy: "I would think he would play but I don't like to speculate. He had just started to come around offensively and he's probably one of our better forwards. The timing was bad for him to miss these games."

Johansson said the team knows what it has to do to improve.

Friday night "overall was a bad performance," he said. "We need to play with more determination and more grit. We have to stay in our positions a little better. Everyone was too open. We have to give the system a chance."

"At some point you have to ask when they are going to get mad," Coach Bruce Cassidy, shown directing team earlier this season, says of slumping Capitals. "Guys are in there saying, 'Poor me.' I'd like to see a little passion."