The Capitals returned to Washington today to prepare for the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night and they are well primed for a playoff drive. Canadiens or not.

The rejuvenated Caps still are within striking distance of qualifying for this spring's National Hockey League playoffs, thanks to one of the most successful road trips in the club's history.

They scrapped and fought (again) to a 5-3 decision over the Vancouver Canucks Friday night to take seven of a possible 10 points on the western safari.

With 15 of their remaining 24 games at home, the Caps are seven points out of the 16th and last playoff spot and only four behind Vancouver, which holds down 18th place.

"That was a playoff game for us," said Washington's captain, Ryan Walter, born and raised only a few miles from Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum. "We've treated the whole trip as our playoff trip."

Walter was named the game's first star after scoring his 18th goal of the season and setting up defenseman Pierre Bouchard's second.

"We're going to do anything to win," he volunteered, in reference to another rugged, rough affair with the Canucks. "Sometimes you have to scrap to do it."

Alan Hangsleben, Paul Mulvey and Mark Lofthouse, another British Columbia product playing close to home, also scored for the Capitals, who broke open a 1-1 tie with two goals in the second period for their 100th victory since entering the NHL in 1974

"That's three very, very aggressive games with Vancouver," said Coach Gary Green, who added he wasn't surprised his team bounced back after having lost, 8-2, in Edmonton less than 24 hours earlier.

"I don't know what it is between the two teams. Maybe it's the western blood coming out of us, versus the Canucks. Maybe it's personality problems."

The Capitals have played .500 hockey (11-11-4) since Dec. 15 and Green estimates that "we'll have to play .600 from here on to make the playoffs. We have 12 of our last 17 games at home, which should help. We've lost only two of our last 10 at home."

The Capitals performed as if they were at home Saturday night, taking the play away from the Canucks in the first period.

Mulvey, who has had a season-long feud with Vancouver defenseman Harold Snepsts, scored what proved to be the winner after only 37 seconds of the third period.

With Kevin McCarthy draped all over him in front of Vancouver goalie Glen Hanlon, Mulvey backhanded in Rick Green's rebound with his back to the goal.

Mulvey's goal gave Washington a 4-1 lead and took the spirit out of the Canucks.

After Curt Fraser got his second goal for the Canucks, Lofthouse iced it shortly after the brawl that interrupted play at 1:04 of the final period.