In each of the Washington Capitals' four losses, the third period has played out in eerily similar fashion: the Caps find themselves down a goal or two, but don't stay close for long.

The Capitals have surrendered a league-worst 14 goals in the third, a problem compounded by the fact that they have scored just three times in the period. It has coaches irritated and veterans calling players-only meetings.

"I don't think teams are that much better than us in the third period," defenseman Jamie Heward said. "If we can match them in the first and second period, we should be able to match them in the third."

Here's a look back at the third-period meltdowns:

* Atlanta took a 4-2 lead into the third period Oct. 7. But a defensive lapse down low allowed Eric Boulton, a player who has never produced more than two goals in a season, to score eight minutes into the final frame, and the Thrashers rolled to a 7-3 victory.

* The next night's game followed a similar script in Atlanta, where the Capitals faced a manageable 3-1 deficit entering the third period. But the Thrashers netted two goals in the first four minutes and won, 8-1.

* On Wednesday, Carolina clung to a 3-2 edge entering the third, but the Hurricanes tallied twice in the period's first 3 minutes 57 seconds and cruised to a 7-2 win.

* More of the same in the 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Thursday. The Capitals trailed 3-2 at the start of the third, but were down two more after only 3:23.

Were they exhausted from an unrelenting schedule that saw them play six games in nine days? Did certain players repeatedly ignore their defensive responsibilities within Coach Glen Hanlon's rigid system? Too many young players under too much pressure?

Players offered different reasons yesterday at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, where they took part in a physical 11/2-hour practice. The third-period breakdowns, they said, have been addressed in a series of meetings, the first of which came moments after Thursday's loss. Several veterans led a closed-door meeting that lasted about 10 minutes.

"When we've been down a goal at the start of the third, we've tried to make too much happen," said Jeff Halpern, the Capitals' captain. "Instead of playing within our system and within ourselves, we're trying to overextend ourselves and we've given up that extra chance. Or we cheat in our system. We give up a goal, then it's 4-2, then 5-2. And that can be deflating.

"I don't think there's any quit in our group, even in the games that have gotten out of control at the end."

The Capitals won't be able to afford many defensive zone slip-ups tonight when they host the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that boasts superstars Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and has yet to break out offensively.

"We're trying to do too much sometimes," right wing Chris Clark said. "If you cheat, you can get that extra step on the defense and have a 2-on-1 or breakaway. But if it doesn't work, then it's an odd-man advantage for the other team going back into our end."

Capitals Notes: Center Andrew Cassels (ankle) is expected to play tonight. He was struck by a puck in the first period Thursday and did not return. . . . Defenseman Bryan Muir (groin) is likely out.