So this innocent bystander was talking to the guy who had the Stanley Cup in a loving embrace. Well, it wasn't really the Stanley Cup. It was a balloon painted silver to look like the Stanley Cup. And the guy had pasted a Capitals' bumper sticker to it. It was, see, the Stanley Cup he expects these Caps to win before Gary Green gets old enough to go to the senior prom.

"Why do you have the Stanley Cup in a loving embrace?" the innocent bystander said.

"Cause ever since I bought it for a dollar, the Caps have a 7-1 record," said Kevin Barry, 18, who wore a tiny Stanley Cup on a ribbon over his heart.

"Can the Caps win tonight?" innocent asked.

"They beat the Canadiens, didn't they?" Barry said. "I was here. I went crazy. Insane. I was so happy for the Caps. I been watching them six years now and I've been through everything. Beating the Canadiens, I was so insane I couldn't talk. The hockey team. Just amazing."

"But can the Caps beat the Flyers?" They never had. They needed to if they want to make the playoffs for the first time ever.They had the Flyers beaten earlier this season only to get stuck with a tie when Bobby Clarke scored with four seconds to play.

The Caps can do anything!" Barry said, patting his Stanley Cup fondly.

As it happens, the Caps came away with another tie, 3-3. It was not satisfying. While the Flyers need points to wrap up first place and so gain the home-ice advantage for all the playoffs, it must not have been all that important to Philadelphia; Clarke watched from the press box, giving a cut eye a day to heal without risk.

There was even a suspicion the real Flyers, all of them, stayed home. These guys in orange last night were gentlemen. They caused no fights and took part in none. The broad Street Bullies could have played this one in skirts.

Still Philadelphia went away with an important point earned without the most important player in their offense. This is a team that went undefeted for 35 games earlier this season, an all-time National Hockey League record, and its work last night without Clarke and without malice was proof certain that the Caps, while on the Climb to respectability, still have most of that Mt. Everest to go.

In the third period last night, the Flyers came at Wayne Stephenson, the Caps' goalie, with bombs. From 40 feet came slap shots. From the right of the net, 15 feet out, came a wrist shot that, flying wide, exploded against the boards. Like so many hungry hoboes stabbing at delectable steak with their forks, the Flyers poked sticks at the puck in a crowd at Stephenson's feet.

"Let's go, Caps," came the chant from the Caps' fans in a capacity crowd of 18,130 that seemed evenly split lin their loyalities. Beacuse Philadelphia is only a three-hour bus ride away, and because you can drink a lot of beer in a three-hour bus ride, maybe the Flyers' fans even had an edge in volume on the Caps' zealots.

While Stephenson stood up bravely to the Flyer siege, Philadelphia goalie Phil Myre was tested only twice in that third period.

Once he knocked away a 50-foot slap shot by Bengt Gustafsson. With 1 1/2 minutes to go, when the Caps' fans had put down enough beer to be full of volume themselves, the Cap Centre raised slightly on its foundations. For then Pierre Bouchard fired a 40-foot shot into a traffic jam at the net's mouth. Victory was only a lucky bounce away.

That lucky bounce didn't come. The puck smothered, dying harmlessly. With 30 seconds to play, Clarke left the press box. Was he going down to suit up for the last four seconds? No. So the tie was assured, and the Capitals stayed in 16th place in the 21-team league, keeping hold of the last playoff spot.

That such status has accrued to the Caps is, of course, fairly amazing. In years past this dismal outfit has been eliminated early. By February, when that Pennsylvania groundhog comes up to see if the sun is shinning, he always sees the Capitals sinking slowly over the horizon. This time the furry prophet saw a teen-ager coaching the Caps toward the playoffs for the first time ever.

Gary Green, the coach, is 26 years old, not 16, but what's a groundhog know?

Besides, it's hard to believe the Capitals are doing this. They are bone-tired. The Flyers bring four lines and six defensemen to the battle every night, with four spare men sitting in the strands, taking a rest; the Caps have three lines and four defensemen, with no extras waiting their turn. In an 80-game schedule, those numbers make a diference.

Ryan Walter, the Caps' captain, works with a bad knee, a bad back, bad ribs. The only thing good about his body is the tape holding it together. Bob Sirois has broken ribs, Rick Green has a bum knee that takes a step of speed away. "The House That Youth Built," says another banner, bragging over these Caps' kids. These are the world's oldest kids, all creaky and aching.

Anyway, this innocent bystander stood there talking to the guy with the Stanley Cup when along came this woman who grabbed him by the arm and hurriedly demanded to know, "Where can I buy playoff tickets?"

Margie Borowiec, 33, was bouncing on her toes, up and down, in happy anticipation of buying playoff tickets to see playoffs that have never before happened in Washington.By day Margie Borowiec is a normal type person, if that's what you call a program analyst for the Internal Revenue Service. At night she is a Caps' fan, which means she gives up normality for three or four hours.

"I am superexcited," Borowiec said. "Are you selling tickets?"

The bystander pointed her toward the ticket window, where, while waiting to pay her $49 for two tickets to two games that may never happen, Borowiec said, "I used to think hockey was a waste here. 'The Caps area losers' is what people said, right? I come from Long Island and I'd really been keen on the Islanders. But when I came out to see the Islanders here, I knew I was for the Caps.

"The underdogs. Theses guys really try.I get down on my knees between the rows of seats. There aren't enough people like me in D.C. There aren't many people who live and die with hockey here.

"But me, when the underdog shows something, I'm for them 120 percent. That's what the Caps are doing?"

By now Margie Borowiec was at the ticket window.

"Two for each playoff game," she said to the ticket seller. "The best you got."