Each night, during this precarious countdown toward the playoffs, the Washington Capitals return home and await the news out of western Canada, where the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks continue to mount long-distance charges.

Tonight promises to be the most nerve-wracking of all. The Capitals must play the Philadelphia Flyers at the Spectrum (WDCA-TV-20 at 8 p.m.), where they have never earned a point, and then bus back to Landover before learning the results of Vancouver's game against Los Angeles.

The Capitals have one significant item in their favor; should they beat the Flyers, and Atlanta here on Saturday, those thousands of playoff tickets that have boosted the Post Offices's certified mail sales this week will rise above souvenir status. But anything less than two victories and prayers are advisable.

"We can't control what happens in Vancouver of Edmonton, but we still control our destiny," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "If we go into Philly and play with as much internsity as we did against Pittsburgh Tuesday, there is no reason why we can't beat the Flyers.

"Obviously, they're not goint to want to give us any advanate whatever. They'll want to leave us stone cold, just in case we have a playoff matchup.

"We hope this will be a test run for the playoffs. I'd rather play Philly than any of the other top teams. The travel has a lot to do with it, of course, but I also think the enthusiasm in a series between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphis Flyers would be remarkable."

The team is confident it can end a Philadelphia jinx that has survived 23 games, of which six at capital Centre have been tied, including two this season.

"I'm fired up and I think we can win in Philly," said winger Paul Mulvey, whose solid work in the corners has helped reduce what was once an overriding Philadelphia advantage. "We've got a big hockey club and I think we're a faster hockey club than they are. If we lay our game, skating and hitting, and they do the same, it should be a heck of a game.

"Last time here (a 3-3 tie Saturday) they didn't hit as much as they used to. Maybe they respect us a little more. But they realize they might meet us in the playoffs, so they'll be maybe going a little harder this time."

Mulvery scored his 15th goal in Tuesday's 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh and it was a present for his mother, who has been sick at home in Merritt, British Columbia. Mulvey was playing despite a badly bruised left foot, which was guarded by a protective covering over which the boot needed only minimal lacing.

"We're alive," said Ryan Walter, who collected No. 23 during a three-goal power-play barrage in 71 seconds. "It's survival of the fittest now and we're fit. The adrenaline is flying."

Another key in recent game for the Capitals has been the outstanding play of Swedish forwards Bengt Gustafsson and Rolf Edberg. Each has 22 goals, with Gustafsson scoring eight in the last 13 games and Edberg seven in 14. Edberg's seventh winning goal of the season on Tuesday set a team record.

The Swedes, along with rugged Alan Hangsleben, were sent against the Flyers' top line of Ken Linseman, Paul Holmgren and Brian Propp Saturday and matched up most favorably. Philadelphia Coach Pat Quinn owns the last line change tonight and it will be interesting to see which Capital unit he chooses to challenge with Holmgren, a 30-goal scorer also carries 265 minutes in penalties.