The Washington Capitals must play eight of their last 10 games against teams they have been unable to beat this season. Of those 10, six are against teams in the National Hockey League's elite top nine, and the Capitals have by far the poorest record against top-flight competition of all the contenders for playoff berths.

The difficulty of the remaining schedule promises Capital fans a heart-in-mouth finish similar to last season, possibly dependent once again on the final game. Beyond the guarantees offered by Coach Gary Green and goalie Mike Palmateer, there is no solid reason for optimism, either.

With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, seven teams have clinched playoff berths -- St. Louis, the New York Islanders, Montreal, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Calgary. Boston and Minnesota are one point away from qualification. Chicago and Vancouver are virtually home free.

That leaves Quebec, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, Toronto, Washington and Edmonton to fight over the five remaining spots, and they are separated by only eight points. It seems inconceivable that struggling Hartford, Detroit or Colorado could push out two of the above six and Winnipeg, of course, has been working on its No. 1 draft selection since November.

The Capitals face a crucial test at 7:30 tonight at Capital Centre against Quebec, a team that has beaten Washington three times this season, including an 11-7 humiliation at Landover Feb. 22. Green was not joking when he said the other day, "We owe Quebec something."

Green and Quebec Coach Michel Bergeron have been feuding for years, most notably over Bergeron's refusal to come out for the pregame anthems. They met here before that February meeting and Bergeron convinced Green that the anthem evasion was mere superstition, not separatist tendencies. Since Bergeron was forced to stand for the anthem here, because the Centre affords no place to hide, one would have thought the result might have ended the superstition, too, but Bergeron was back in the locker room before the March 4 meeting in Quebec, won by the Nordiques, 7-4.

In that contest, Green rotated two lines against Quebec's two top lines, meanwhile trying to get Dennis Maruk's trio out against the Nordiques' third line. Bergeron gave his offensive stars extra shifts and rarely used his No. 3 unit.

Afterward, Bergeron poured fuel on the flames of the quieting rivalry, being quoted as saying that, "I'm glad Gary didn't want to use Maruk. I didn't want him out there, either. If Gary always plays like that, he'll never beat me."

Add the fact that Green was unable to post a victory in four tries this season against his old mentor, Buffalo Coach Roger Neilson, and one can imagine how badly Green wants to win tonight. At least, as the home coach, he will get the last line change, which should guarantee Maruk ample ice time. h

Following the Quebec game, the Capitals face St. Louis, Montreal and Philadelphia, hardly the ideal path to the playoffs, although the Flyers, along with Hartford, are the only remaining foes over whom Washington owns a victory this season. The Capitals, currently 16th with 60 points, are 3-20-7 against the top nine, a statistic that does not augur well for their chances, considering that tough schedule down the stretch.

Quebec, which beat Detroit, 4-3, last night, holds 12th place with 67 points. The Nordiques have the most favorable schedule of all the contenders, with only two games against the top nine, home contests against Montreal and Calgary. After tonight, Quebec has only three more road games, against the New York Rangers, Hartford and Toronto.

Pittsburgh, which lost to Vancouver last night, 4-3, has 64 points and only three remaining games against the top nine. An injury to all-star defenseman Randy Carlyle Monday night in Edmonton left the Penguins in a shaky situation, however, and seven of their last nine games are on the road, where they are a mediocre 7-20-7.

The New York Rangers, with 62 points, have only nine games left, six against members of the top nine. They have a 7-17-6 mark against the big boys, with only Washington worse, and the may be the most logical target for the Capitals to edge out.

Toronto, with 60 points but more victories than Washington, seemed ready to be counted out until that big victory over the Capitals Saturday. Goalie Bunny Larocque has given the Leafs a lift and, despite a difficult schedule with five games against the top nine, their 10-16-5 record against the top teams -- they were 4-0 against Minnesota, 2-0-2 with the Flyers -- indicates they can handle it.

Edmonton, presently 17th with 59 points, plays its last three games against Colorado, Vancouver and Winnipeg, so any team holding a slim edge over the Oilers entering the last week had better be prepared for an early vacation. Edmonton also benefits this week from playing two games against Minnesota while the North Stars' 25-goal left wing, Steve Payne, is suspended.

Here is a capsule look at the contenders before last night's games:

Quebec -- 67 points; nine to play, five home, four away, two against top nine; 10-17-7 record against top nine.

Pittsburgh -- 64 points; nine to play, three home, six away, three against top nine; 10-19-4 record against top nine.

New York Rangers -- 62 points; nine to play; four home; five away, six against top nine; 7-17-6 record against top nine.

Toronto -- 60 points; 10 to play, six home, four away, six against top nine; 3-20-7 record against top nine.

Edmonton -- 59 points; 10 to play, four home, six away, four against top nine; 8-17-7 record against top nine.