When the Washington Capitals came from two goals back to tie the Red Wings in Detroit Sunday, Coach Danny Belisle praised them, saying, "This club doesn't quit."

The players to a man have not quit hoping for a Stanley Cup playoff berth, either. Even Swedes Leif Svensson and Rolf Edberg, asked if they will represent their native country in the World Championships at Moscow Arril 14-28, answered in the same words, "Yes -- if we don't make the playoffs."

To keep their mathematical chances viable, the Capitals must defeat Detroit at home Wednesday and Pittsburgh here Saturday. Meanwhile, the Penguins must lose in Vancouver tonight and at Los Angeles Wednesday. That sequence of events would still leave Washington seven points behind Pittsburgh, their obvious target, but where there's life, there's hope.

Montreal, Boston, the New York Islanders and Chicago are assured first-place finishes and first-round playoff byes. The second-place team in each division will also qualify, so either Vancouver or St. Louis will make it despite far inferior records than the Capitals.

The New York Rangers, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Toronto seem fairly certain of playoff entry. That leaves two spots open for Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Washington.

Although Los Angeles leads Pittsburgh by only two points, the Kings play eight of their remaining 12 games at home. They could be passed by the Penguins; there is no way Washington can beat them out for second place.

That reduces the Capitals' hopes to finishing in front of Pittsburgh and Minnesota and gaining a wild card. Right now, the Penguins have 65 points and 15 games to play, Minnesota 59 points and 14 games left, and the Capitals 54 points and 13 games remaining.

Pittsburgh, despite the games in hand, has a difficult schedule, with only five at home. The Penguins must play the Islanders twice, the Rangers twice, and Boston, Montreal and Atlanta once each. More important, they have three games left with Washington.

The Capitals have seven home games left, including two with the Penguins, but they face two visits to Montreal besides traveling to Buffalo, Philadelphia and Toronto.

Should Washington sweep the trio with Pittsburgh and come up big against the toughies and should the Penguins collapse under that tough schedule and the absence of injured leader Peter Mahovlich, Washington could slip past the Penguins.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has five games left with Smythe Division teams and could easily charge past Pittsburgh and remain uncatchable by Washington.

Realistically, there are too many "ifs." The Capitals are playing well, so well as to make both themselves and their fans proud and optimistic about the future.

That knowledge will probably have to the enough to sustain them through the summer.