Senators 5, Capitals 2

The last time the Washington Capitals faced the Ottawa Senators they were hammered so convincingly that Coach Bruce Cassidy opted to completely restructure the team's defensive system. The Capitals have been significantly improved since then, and tonight's rematch with the Senators provided a unique measure of their reversal.

Washington was playing its third game in four nights, did not arrive in Ottawa until this afternoon, lost leading scorer Jaromir Jagr to a groin injury in the second period, and fell, 5-2, to the NHL's top team at Corel Centre. The Capitals made a game of this and pushed Ottawa into the latter minutes -- unlike during their 6-2 loss to the Senators on Nov. 29 -- but three third-period goals undid them in a game that was closer than the final score would indicate.

"We were in the game in the third period, and the Ottawa Senators just outworked us on the [boards]," said Cassidy, coaching in his home town for the first time. "They outworked us for loose pucks. . . . They turned it up a notch, and obviously we're not in their league yet. We were competitive and that's good for something, but it's still disappointing [to lose] when you're that close."

Jagr, who has a long history of groin problems, was receiving treatment after the game and was not available to comment. General Manager George McPhee said Jagr's status was day-to-day because of a groin strain, with a Monday afternoon game in Boston next up.

Ottawa began to pull away six minutes into the third period tonight. Martin Havlat, a dervish all night long, put Ottawa ahead 3-2 by tapping Radek Bonk's pass between backup goalie Sebastien Charpentier's legs. Daniel Alfredsson cranked a vicious shot under the crossbar four minutes later, and Bonk added an empty-net goal.

The Senators, prospering on the ice despite an uncertain future off it after filing for bankruptcy this month, peppered Charpentier in the opening minutes as well. Emerging superstar Marian Hossa rang a shot off the post and Charpentier made two sterling point-blank saves from a prone position.

"Coming in I was just trying to give us a chance to be in the game," Charpentier said. "They came at me right off the bat, and I made a few big saves and that was exciting. We built off that."

Washington (21-18-5-3) scored first about four minutes in. Michael Nylander flicked a high backhand shot to the far side on a power play, ending goalie Patrick Lalime's run of three straight shutouts.

Ottawa (30-10-5-1) quickly resumed putting its superior speed to use and nearly connected on repeated passes through the crease. That strategy finally worked on the Senators' first power play, and Bonk's pass smacked the skate of Washington defenseman Brendan Witt and entered the net.

The Senators scored again with 67 seconds remaining in the period. Todd White whipped the puck from deep in the corner to Alfredsson, who was granted far too much room in the offensive zone to rip a shot to the near side, beating Charpentier's glove. Charpentier spent the beginning of the second period watching pucks fly dangerously close to the net, but the Senators could not add to their lead and the Capitals equalized midway through the game.

Robert Lang drove to the net, was nudged from behind and lost control of the puck. It slipped between Lalime's legs as Lang bumped into him and the officials waved the goal off for goaltender interference, but the video replay judge overruled that decision. The Senators continued to force the play around Washington's net, but the Capitals killed three penalties against a superior power play and were still very much in the game as the third period began.

"We were right where we wanted to be after two [periods]," team captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "They're a good team, and maybe in the third we gave them too much respect. We should have been motivated and jumping on them."

Capitals Notes: Forward Josh Green (one assist) and defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski made their debuts for Washington. Kwiatkowski, a Canadian citizen who was acquired from Ottawa this week, hoped to be able to travel with the Capitals to Boston, but the team was still working out his immigration issues. . . .

Rookie center Brian Sutherby was named to participate in the NHL's Young Stars Game, which will take place the night before the All-Star Game next month in Florida. . . .

Forward Glen Metropolit cleared waivers today and reported to Portland, Maine. . . . Forward Alex Henry and defenseman Rick Berry were scratched, and Dainius Zubrus missed the first of at least three games because of a concussion. . . .

Frank Costello, Washington's strength and conditioning coach for the last 17 years, left the team to take another job and was replaced by Jim Fox, who worked previously at American University.

Caps' Steve Konowalchuk tries -- but fails -- to tip puck past Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime. "Maybe . . . we gave them too much respect," Konowalchuk said of first-place Senators.