On what originally was supposed to be a day off, the Washington Capitals held a team meeting and detailed practice yesterday in an attempt to halt a three-game losing streak. The Capitals have lost four of their last five games, including consecutive 6-2 and 5-1 losses at home, and have not played well since the all-star break nearly three weeks ago.

There was a players-only meeting in the dressing room after Saturday's thrashing by Detroit and players and coaches alike reemphasized stern team defense during yesterday's 30-minute meeting. Washington has allowed 18 goals in its last five games while scoring only seven. The Capitals' lead over Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division has dwindled to a single point.

This is not unfamiliar territory for the Capitals, who found themselves at a similar crossroads in December. Coach Bruce Cassidy, who changed the team's system hours before Saturday's game, has gone back to preaching the need to play a patient, trapping game in the hopes a return to stingy defense will help cure some of the club's other woes as well. That style helped Washington right itself in December and January.

"The biggest thing they talked about [during yesterday's meeting] was better defensive play," Cassidy said. "It's what got us into first place and everyone is capable of that. I know we all want everyone to score, but I think it's easier to contribute in a defensive fashion than to say, 'I'm going to go out and score.' That was about it. I just said I think we need to get back to basics. That's why we did our forecheck and trap [at practice], simple stuff. Let's get real good at it again."

Washington is likely to have a revamped lineup for tonight's game against Montreal, a team it has scored one goal on in two games. Defenseman Ken Klee remains out with back spasms, while defenseman Sergei Gonchar (swollen foot) and winger Peter Bondra (sore leg) both missed yesterday's practice as well.

Gonchar was unable to get his foot in a skate after blocking a shot Saturday night but said he thought he would be able to play tonight. Bondra, in a slump and a possible candidate for a trade before the March 11 deadline, twisted his leg in an awkward collision early in that game and said he was unsure if he would be able to play tonight.

Regardless of the personnel, the players said they realize they need to curb this slump as quickly as possible. For a while the team bemoaned its inability to beat elite teams, but now it must find a way to get a win over any opponent.

"There's only 19 games left, we can't wait until the last five," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "We've got to get this turned around now. We know we have it and we've shown it before. We went 14 straight games where we got a point and played some decent hockey. We've got to do it again right now."

For much of this season goalie Olaf Kolzig's outstanding play and a torrid scoring streak from winger Jaromir Jagr obscured some of this team's deficiencies, but a lack of scoring and defensive depth has become glaring lately.

"We obviously need to work on defensive zone coverage and better things structurally," Kolzig said. "But [Saturday] night we got beat one-on-one and structure has got nothing to do with that. Structure has got nothing to do with stopping the puck or finding the back of the net. Those are things that as individuals we have to do a better job of."

Cassidy, who had never coached in the NHL before, has tried to get the most out of his bounty of skilled players by allowing for more creative play at times this season, and the coach is not a proponent of passive hockey. But his team has failed to play well when not trapping and can ill afford to let this slide continue no matter how unattractive the product may be.

"It's not a fun way to play, you can ask the New Jersey Devils that," said Cassidy, the second-youngest coach in the league. "But they're sitting in first place. It's discipline and structure and three [forwards] have to be together and the [defensemen] have to read off them. It's execution and structure and it's patience and discipline. Do we have enough of that in the room to do that night after night? Right now I would say we do, but some nights we choose not do that.

"I've seen us do it and be very good in our own end and tighten things up, but from night to night I don't know. That's kind of the makeup of our team, and that's coaching.

"As a coach you have to make guys accountable to that and that's been the battle. It's your first year and you come in and want to let guys play . . . so you can score more and we've accomplished that, we're a much higher scoring team than before. But when you're not scoring you have to get back and say we're going to clamp down here. That's what we're asking for."

Sergei Fedorov and Red Wings skated past Steve Konowalchuk, left, and Mike Grier for five goals on Saturday.