The Washington Capitals were far from satisfied with their overtime loss in New Jersey Saturday night -- a game decided at least in part by some questionable officiating -- but even in defeat the team distanced itself from its humble beginnings to this season.

The Capitals, clearly fatigued in the back end of a home-and-home series with the tough and talented Devils, spent the latter part of the game killing penalties players believe were unwarranted. But despite a 2-1 loss, the Capitals say they have seen improvement. If the game had taken place in October or November, players would have, by their own admission, likely wilted in the third period and lost in regulation. Instead, Washington nearly won in overtime and still picked up a standings point for the overtime loss, giving them points in six straight games.

"We got a point, we're doing some good things, and earlier this year we might not have hung around and got that point," Coach Bruce Cassidy said.

"That's a good step for our hockey club."

Cassidy opted to give the Capitals yesterday off after their strong effort. The first two months of the season, that would not have happened. Cassidy plainly was baffled by his players' reaction to adversity; it seemed to bring out the worst in them. When the Capitals fell behind they would roll over, stray from their defensive instructions and get outworked by opponents.

That is not happening this month. The work ethic is consistent. The approach is consistent. The results have been largely consistent, with Washington on a 4-0-1-1 run heading into tonight's game with Buffalo at MCI Center, where the team is 10-5 and where it plays seven of the next nine games.

"There's a better feel in the dressing room," said goaltender Olaf Kolzig, "and we're expecting to win games now at the start of the game rather than trying to feel things out as the game goes on and then determine what the game is going to be like after the first period. We come out with a lot more jump in the first [period], which sets us up for the rest of the game."

Washington was the NHL's worst first-period team until recently, surrendering 32 goals in the opening period in its first 32 games and scoring only 18 times. But the Capitals have not allowed a first-period goal in the last five games -- which directly coincides with their run of improved results -- and have outscored teams 5-0 in that period over that span.

Over the first 32 games, the Capitals never went more than three straight games without yielding a first-period goal, and even that modest streak was accomplished only once. The Capitals also are scoring the game's first goal, another statistic with a strong correlation to wins.

"In the beginning of the year, if we fell behind we kind of slowed down and waited," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "But now, when things work against us it seems we're competing harder and playing harder. It's a huge improvement in our team play and I'm proud of it."

The biggest overall change has been defensively. Washington has continued to allow ample amounts of shots on goal, but that statistic is often misleading and Kolzig thrived on a heavy workload. More telling is the number of scoring chances conceded, and the team has drastically curtailed its propensity to turn over the puck, concede space around the crease and give teams odd-man rushes.

The Capitals have yielded only 12 goals in the last seven games. Teams have scored only two even-strength goals on the Capitals in the last five games, and Washington went the equivalent of 15 periods without allowing an even-strength goal. The problem has been penalty killing, which is routinely done in by the team's willingness to take costly penalties in succession at the most inopportune occasions.

Work remains to be done on the power play, which is in a 4-for-60 slide despite a staggering array of talent; Cassidy continues to juggle personnel, but there are no go-to plays and little confidence that the team will score. Jaromir Jagr, the key to the power play, has one power play goal since Nov. 23 and just four points in the last nine games. Robert Lang (two points in the past 10 games) and Gonchar (no goals in 12 games) are struggling to produce, while the defense has produced three goals this month.