As a Christmas present, a back-to-back series against the Philadelphia Flyers rates even lower than a stocking full of unburnable coal. But that is the Washington Capitals' gift from the NHL schedule-maker and Act 1 last night at Capital Centre followed the predictable script, ending in a 5-2 victory for the Flyers.

Tonight's rematch at the Spectrum (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30 p.m.) is even lower on the Capitals' applause meter. At least in Washington, the Capitals have managed six ties against the only team they never have beaten. In Philadelphia, the record reads 12 defeats in 12 games.

For further unpleasantry, Washington must play tonight without defenseman Pat Ribble, who suffered an outside-ligament strain of the right knee in the second period last night. Darren Veitch has been recalled from Hershey to fill that gap. Winger Bengt Gustafsson, troubled by a sprained back, saw restricted duty last night and is questionable for tonight, with the possibility of a further recall before game time.

The Washington fans in the sellout crowd of 18,130 had reason to cheer for 24 minutes, as the Capitals built a 2-0 lead on goals by rookie Tim Tookey, his first in the NHL, and veteran Bob Kelly, his first against his old team of 10 seasons.

Along with the goals, Washington came close to a more solid advantage, both Dennis Maruk and Mike Gartner rattling goal posts and Tookey slipping behind the Flyer defense only to mishandle Gartner's perfect pass.

Letting opportunities slip away against the NHL's No. 1 team is a sure way to court disaster. And so it proved, as the Flyers utilized a 20-7 shooting edge in the second period to grab a 3-2 lead on goals by Bob Dailey, Reg Leach and Tim Kerr. Tom Gorence and Leach wrapped it up in the third period, Leach netting his second of the night and 15th of the season with the Flyers shorthanded.

"We actually outplayed this club for half a game," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "It's a matter of convincing yourself you can do it for a whole game. Of course, as soon as our game plan was affected by the loss of Rib and Gus' problems, we were in trouble. Losing Rib really affected us defensively."

Tookey hit on a power play at 8:55, ending a string of 20 unsucessful extra-man attempts stretching over seven games. He connected on a rebound after the Flyers' Pete Peeters had blocked shots by Gustafsson and Gartner. It was Tookey's second shot, in his second NHL game.

"It was great at the time, but it's not so great when you lose," Tookey said. "I was tense and that took a little pressure off, relaxed me out there. But they're a great team -- down two goals and they just keep coming."

Kelly, the only player to receive a 100 percent favorable greeting from the mixed assemblage of Flyer and Capital fans, faked a pass to Dennis Maruk and scored on the front of a two-on-one against Terry Murray at 16:27. The play was set up when defenseman Howard Walker knocked Flyer Paul Holmgren off the puck at the other end.

"I never place much emphasis on goals and assists," Kelly said. "If we got a point or two points out of it, I'd be more satisfied. It doesn't do any good when you lose. You can never give up on those guys, no matter how far behind they are. To beat them, you've got to work for 60 minutes and get the breaks. We didn't work for 60 minutes. Palmy (goalie Mike Palmateer) was great, but we didn't help him enough."

A bad pass by rookie Jim McTaggart was converted into a goal by Dailey, then the Flyers scored on a pair of power plays just 28 seconds apart to move in front.

After Gartner flubbed a shot off a fine Tookey pass early in the third period, Gorence came around from behind the Washington net and slipped a shot past Palmateer from an angle that appeared so impossible the Capitals briefly complained that the cage had been lifted up. Leach's shorthanded score was just icing on the Christmas fruitcake.

Although referee Bob Myers called 76 minutes in penalties, 43 against the Flyers, there were more fights among beer-saturated fans than on the ice. The lone fistic encounter of note matched Kelly and Flyer bully boy Paul Holmgren, shortly after Kelly's goal.

"We were banging and clomping around a bit, that's all," Kelly said. "I'm no great fighter. When it happens, it happens, but it didn't mean anything."