The Washington Capitals won more than a hockey game Sunday night. They earned instant respectability by skating into the Spectrum and stifling the Philadelphia Flyers, 6-0.

The knowledge was implanted on the Flyers, other incredulous hockey people who heard that score and, most important, on the Capitals themselves, that anytime Mike Palmateer is in goal Washington is capable of winning -- no matter the opponent, site or circumstances.

Washington had seven regulars out of action; yet a 44-save effort by Palmateer compensated for some rookie mistakes, wiped out Philadelphia's 16-game Specturm unbeaten streak and gave the Capitals their first-ever success against the hated Flyers.

It certainly was the outstanding goaltending effort of this season in the NHL; it ranks with one of the best ever. Most shutouts are the result of all-out defensive efforts that limit the victim to few good shots. Philadelphia had a lot of good ones and its total of 14 in the first seven minutes of the game topped by two the total saves Montreal's Denis Herron recorded Thursday in a shutout at Calgary.

In this year of high scores in the NHL, Palmateer was recording only the 11th zero. The highest number of saves by a shutout goalie, until Sunday, was 26, recorded by Hartford's Mike Veisor against Colorado Oct. 22. Only Herron, in Thursday's piece of cake, had blanked an opponent on the road.

"Palmy was the key, no question," said General Manager Max McNab. "He was ready. I'm glad we got the whole thing on film. He gave us a whole year of highlights in one night, right from the first 10 seconds. If you're going to beat them, the first 10 or 12 minutes are crucial, because they really come at you. Play was in our zone a good bit, but Palmy came up big and gave everyone else a shot of confidence."

It was reminiscent of the performance by Palmateer in the 1978 Stanley Cup playoffs, when his brilliant work carried Toronto to a seven-game quarterfinal upset of the New York Islanders. The little guy has had a few shaky moments this season, but when he is right, he can carry a team to unforeseen heights. And he is only 26, so the Capitals expect him to be the key when they finally perform on the playoff stage.

"Our building program is geared to winning the Cup, as against making the playoffs," McNab said. "First things first, but with the new alignment, playing Philly eight times and needing to beat them to advance in the playoffs, this was a great victory for us. Philly has a solid program and they're getting better, with the excellent organization in Maine. They're the team we'll have to beat in the future."

Palmateer looked beyond the game to future success, too.

"This was a big win for us, not just because it was the Flyers," Palmateer said. "We have a difficult schedule coming up (eight road games in the next 10). Now we can enjoy our Christmas holiday and come back with a good feeling about hockey. That's important."

Palmateer needed treatment for cramps in his legs after the 14th save, but thereafter he was able to rest whenever an altercation halted the action. With 344 penalty minutes dealt out by referee Dave Newell, there obviously were a number of delays.

"You have to realize it's going to be that way," McNab said of the constant battling. "It's not going to change when we go in there. Togetherness was the whole key to winning that game, the basic knowledge that 19 guys working together can do anything. They stuck up for each other better than any Capital team we've ever taken on the road."

Bob Kelly knew perhaps better than anyone else what this success against his former teammates meant.

"I'm happy to win it, but I'm more interested in the long range," Kelly said. "It adds so much confidence to know that this team walked in here and did a hell of a job.

"The last seven games were not our best. But this time we won with hard work. What you lack in talent you have to pick up in heart. Wherever the action was, five guys were there to help each other out. Even if we'd lost, it wouldn't have been for lack of effort, and that means a lot down the road."

In the past, the Capitals have been victims of poor timing, losing the big games before the big crowds and tumbling back into oblivion. But this time they were beating the best in front of a television audience, despite obvious shortcomings caused by injuries.

"Timing in life is everything," McNab said. "The timing for this particular win was really good. It cements things for the whole organization. pTo win with so many players out, and to win big when we have the toughest part of our schedule coming up, nothing was more welcome."

On the bus ride back from Philadelphia, the players sang Christmas carols in a variety of keys and pitches.

"Some of them should stick to perfecting their hockey game," McNab said. "They have no future as singers. But somehow they sounded pretty good. They seemed to get better as we rolled along and it was a quick trip home."

Archie Henderson, whose willingness to battle Flyer bully boy Behn Wilson in his NHL debut gave his new teammates a lift, will remain with the Capitals, although the man he replaced, Bengt Gustafsson, is expected to play against the New York Rangers here Friday.

Pat Ribble will be out three to four weeks with that strained knee ligament, so Washington will continue to go with a five-man defense that includes three rookies -- Jim McTaggart, Howard Walker and Darren Veitch -- and veterans Rich Green and Yvon Labre.

"Talk about maturing in a hurry, the three rooks really came through for us," McNab said. "Everybody did a job. Togetherness was the total key."