A year ago this week, the Washington Capitals were poking along below .500 and destined to miss the playoffs. They were playing erratically, winning exciting games but also blowing leads and games they should have won. A graph of their performance would have resembled a wildly fluctuating stock or an oddly beating heart.

Not so this season. After their customary slow start, they have moved seven games above .500. But little has come easily and last night's game was no exception. The Capitals lost a 3-1 lead and had to settle for a 4-4 tie with lowly Atlanta.

The Capitals may lead the Southeast Division and hold the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. But their fans know that any celebrating would be premature. The Capitals' division lead is slim, the No. 3 seed hardly ensured. Making the playoffs seems certain. But what they do in the playoffs is highly uncertain.

Last night's game was a startling example of the uncertainties that beset the team. Superstar Jaromir Jagr got off to a blazing start with two first-period goals and a second-period assist. It looked as if he would lead the Capitals to a rout. But Jagr, who has made known his wish for more playing time, got only 12 minutes 15 seconds in the first two periods; with more ice time, he might have put away Atlanta by the second intermission. Given his brilliant start, it seemed as if he would play more.

"That's what I thought, too," he said afterward. "Maybe next game."

A second reporter asked him about his lack of playing time.

"You're asking the wrong guy," he said. "He's the coach."

The "he" is rookie coach Bruce Cassidy, who has arrived at his first NHL crunch time -- the pivotal late-season games and the playoffs. After a 5-4 loss at Atlanta on Dec. 1 for a 10-13-2 record to open the season, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis declared himself "heartbroken" -- a reaction that seemed to jump-start the team. Presuming Leonsis won't be delivering a "Gipper" speech to inspire the team once again, it's Cassidy who must play the lead role in a hot, bright spotlight. Oh, yes, that spotlight includes General Manager George McPhee.

Cassidy, it might be remembered, was the stunning coaching choice McPhee made after he fired veteran Ron Wilson. Cassidy brought no NHL coaching experience to a notably veteran NHL team. This, the most exciting time of the hockey season, also is judgment time for Cassidy and McPhee.

It's important, if not crucial, for the Capitals to outlast Tampa Bay to get the No. 3 conference seed, home-ice advantage and, presumably, a more favorable matchup for the first round of playoffs. If they don't win the division, they will have to hit the road and may be hard pressed to win a playoff series.

Tampa Bay has the schedule advantage. Of its last 15 games, 10 are against sub-.500 teams. Meantime, the Capitals face a late-season road trip that takes them to all six Canadian NHL cities.

If the Capitals follow form, they'll return from the north 3-3 -- which may or may not be good enough to keep ahead of Tampa Bay. Three of the Canadian teams have winning records, three have losing records. More often than not but not often enough as happened last night, the Capitals win games they should. But their record against teams with more standings points inspires little confidence: 2-15-1-2.

That record provides somewhat of a hint as to how deep the Capitals might go in the playoffs even if they get past round one.

It's up to Cassidy, really. He's got a host of talented veterans: Jagr, goaltender Olaf Kolzig and Peter Bondra, to name a few. Cassidy also has three key players who were not healthy last season: Jeff Halpern, Calle Johansson and Steve Konowalchuk. McPhee made some other significant additions in the offseason: Mike Grier, Robert Lang, Kip Miller and Michael Nylander.

These Capitals are a much better team than Wilson had last season. They should be playing better than they were this time a year ago.

Wilson ran his course here, his departure coming as no surprise to the veteran players. But they believed Wilson would be succeeded by a veteran coach.


What comes as no surprise is the rookie coach still trying to find his own way even while trying to lead the players.

"You want to make sure your guys are in the right frame of mind," Cassidy said before last night's game. "You want to challenge them. That's the way I coached in the minors. But you've got to be careful. I realized here, the players have accomplished a lot more and you have to treat them differently. And then I got to the point where maybe I wasn't pushing them enough, making them accountable enough, and now we're trying to find that balance. You know what, in your first year, I don't know if you ever truly find it until you've been in the league for a while. But I'm working on it. And I think it's a lot better now than at the start."

Still, he's learning on the job -- and admitted as much after the game.

Jagr, who has been fighting the flu and missed a couple of skates this week, certainly looked healthy and strong early last night. But he ended up with only 21:23 including overtime. He played less than three other forwards.

"I guess he wasn't sick the way he played in the first period," Cassidy said. "That's a mistake I made. I should have budgeted his minutes better."

Cassidy knows his fate is largely tied to Jagr. (And so is McPhee's.) Yet Cassidy and Jagr have had at least a couple of differences. Jagr told reporters several games ago that he wanted more playing time.

Cassidy more or less agreed, but Jagr hasn't played 24 minutes in a game since Dec. 6. Lately, Jagr has differed with Cassidy over his tinkering with the power-play personnel. Jagr might be able to make the Capitals' life -- and Cassidy's -- easier if he got his way.

It might not be all that brilliant a stroke to put him on the ice more.

What Cassidy does next -- how he handles Jagr and the rest of this veteran team -- bears watching as the coach makes his debut in the NHL's stretch run and playoff spotlight.