Long after MCI Center had emptied and the rest of the Washington Capitals were driving home, goalie Olaf Kolzig, defenseman Calle Johansson and center Robert Lang sat around the dressing room assessing their team's place in the NHL. The Capitals had lost again to a premier team, the New Jersey Devils, and the players vented their frustration about their inability to defeat the league's elite.

The Capitals (25-20-7-3) have become a quality club, erasing another poor start and taking the lead in the modest Southeast Division. But to be considered a Stanley Cup contender, Washington must produce wins against clubs such as Dallas, Ottawa, New Jersey, Detroit and St. Louis.

"Olie, Robert and I talked about that for over an hour, and we all said the same thing," Johansson said. "It's not good enough to say, 'Well, the Devils were a better team.' We're sick of saying that we got beat by a better team. We have to be the better team against the best teams in the league.

"We haven't really beaten any top teams, so I don't consider us a great team yet. We can be, but we have to beat those teams and we can't be satisfied with losing 2-1 and saying they are a better team. It's not good enough, because in order to be the best we have to beat the best, bottom line."

The Capitals, who will host the surging New York Islanders tonight, have played 15 games against teams that were ahead of them in the standings entering play last night -- New Jersey, Philadelphia, Ottawa and Toronto in the East, and Dallas, St. Louis and Minnesota in the West -- and have a 2-12-0-1 record in those games, beating the Devils (Dec. 27) and Philadelphia (Nov. 9).

"Once you get to the playoffs, if you're going to do anything, you're going to have to beat teams like Philly, New Jersey, St. Louis or Dallas," Lang said. "So far we are good against some teams, but our record is bad against really good teams, and eventually that's going to be our opponent."

Washington has been outscored 54-28 in games against teams currently ahead of them in the standings, and while the team is 21-12-4-2 against the Eastern Conference, the mark is not as impressive considering the club is 10-2-1 against teams in its mediocre division; 11-10-3-2 against the rest of the conference.

"It's nice to win the division, but at the same time to earn respect you've got to beat the top teams," Kolzig said. "We've played well against them, but not good enough. We had a 3-1 lead on St. Louis and lost. . . . The other night we get a 1-0 lead on New Jersey, who has a tough time creating [offense] five-on-five and we decide to keep playing open hockey and they create some turnovers and two-on-ones and three-on-ones. . . . We've got to learn once we have a lead against a good team that we've got to shut them down and not concentrate ourselves too much offensively."

Washington has allowed 11 goals in two losses to Ottawa, 11 goals in two losses to Dallas and five goals in its loss to St. Louis. While the approach to team defense and penalty killing has made great strides this season, it has yet to counteract the most potent attacks in the game.

"If they want to beat those elite teams on a regular basis they have to understand you can't give up five and six goals," Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "That's the message we talked to the players about after the game [Wednesday] night. Our special teams are coming around, we have arguably the best goaltender in the league and we can score with any team in the league. We have a good mix of players. We're tough enough.

"I think it's just our team defense. Do we want to do what it takes with the puck and make good decisions with it and without it? That's where we're at as a club. I think we've grown miles in the regard since November and I think that's brought us to another level ahead of Tampa, the Islanders and Pittsburgh, but now if we want to get with the big boys, to me that's the only difference right now. . . . When we learn that, we're going to beat those teams."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who is playing more than 27 minutes a game, was feeling fatigued yesterday and did not practice. He is adjusting to a more rigorous workload this season and will continue to be spelled on non-game days, Cassidy said. . . . The Capitals are unbeaten in their last 13 games at home against the Islanders, dating from March 2, 1997.

Michael Nylander and Capitals were frustrated when they went up against Martin Brodeur, left, Tommy Albelin and the New Jersey Devils.