After playing six games in nine days, including four that went into overtime, the Washington Capitals have been rewarded with their longest respite of the season. The Capitals, who have earned at least one point in the standings in each of their last 10 games, do not play again until Friday night in Carolina.

The five-day break, which began after a 2-2 tie with the New York Rangers on Saturday night, amounts to a lengthy vacation in the NHL, where back-to-back games are common. Washington will get four days off during the all-star break, but besides that, has only one span of three days off between games for the duration of the season.

This scheduling quirk left the coaching staff with a quandary on how to best manage the time, and they decided to give the team Sunday and Monday off, and return to practice today. Several stars, including Peter Bondra (flu) and Jaromir Jagr (sore ankle), are trying to overcome nagging health problems (both are expected at practice today), and Coach Bruce Cassidy wants to maximize his team's recovery time and reinforce principles with successive practices.

"It's some good time off; they've earned it," he said. "We're going to give the guys a couple of days. . . . Certainly, one day will be a special teams day, and the day before the game will probably be a quick [practice]. The other day maybe we'll review some defensive zone entries. . . . But we haven't changed a lot and we did [change systems] a month ago and we've stuck with it and when you're winning and doing things well you can get away from teaching a little bit."

Cassidy, who organized a visit to a Texas ranch for team bonding exercises during a preseason trip, set up a paintball outing and team dinner for yesterday, but that was scrapped because of the weather. No other group activity could be arranged on short notice, so the team settled for a day off.

The Capitals have had chemistry problems for the last few years and Cassidy has emphasized the need for the team to be more unified. That has improved the last five weeks.

Although Washington failed to maintain several third-period leads and lost in overtime to inferior opponents, it did climb from fourth place in the Southeast Division to first. The team has also earned points in its last four road games, doubling its previous longest stretch of the season.

Saturday's game at Madison Square Garden was also the first of 11 straight games against Eastern Conference teams, a span that could ultimately affect the playoff race (the Capitals are 14-9-2 against conference opponents). It also brought an end to a hectic schedule since the Christmas break.

"It had definitely been a long week," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "We're trying to get a bit of a break here and rest our bodies before we get back at it."

Other players would prefer the grind to continue.

"That's why we play. The games are the fun part," center Jeff Halpern said. "Having a week off, I don't particularly like it. I'd rather be out there playing than sitting at home thinking about it. It's somewhat okay that we go into the week off with a point [from Saturday's tie], but the way we're playing now is not great, and I'd rather be out there playing."

Capitals Notes: The team's medical staff does not believe Jagr's injury is serious. There appears to be no structural damage and he is expected to be on the ice today. Jagr wrenched his ankle when his skate hit a rut Saturday night and he did not play in the third period or overtime. . . . General Manager George McPhee said he plans to initiate talks with defenseman Calle Johansson on a contract extension in the second half of the season. Johansson would become eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1 if not re-signed. "We'll talk at some point," McPhee said. "We're not going to let him get to the summer" and become an unrestricted free agent. . . . Minor league defenseman Nolan Yonkman recently had the hard cast removed from his broken arm, and is still likely a month from playing, McPhee said. Yonkman has missed most of the season because of injuries, but "if he comes right back in and plays well for Portland, he will get a look here later in the year," McPhee said. . . . Former backup goalie Craig Billington retired and has been named goalie coach and consultant for the Colorado Avalanche.