After tying No. 1 St. Louis and No. 3 Montreal, then whipping No. 4 Philadelphia in its own building, the Washington Capitals came down to earth today in Detroit, where, on Thursday night (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30), they encounter the 19th-place Red Wings, who have won only once in their last 14 games.

It is the kind of matchup in which the Capitals historically have fallen on their faces.

"We are overflowing with confidence, but I don't think we're over-confident," said right wing Mike Gartner, whose hat trick helped defeat the Flyers. "We're confident that each player is going to do his job and we won't be tempted to try to help out too much, as we have before, when it's gotten us into trouble.

"We're coming off three great efforts in the last four or five days. They were three games where maybe not everybody thought we could win or tie. They were bonus points for us.

"We've been counting right along on beating Detroit and Hartford. Now that we've gotten those points from teams where we thought maybe not, we're coming in here. We have to win here or those others will be in vain. It will be tough, but I think we've got something going now that we're not going to give up easily."

The spirit and camaraderie are reminiscent of September, when the Capitals flew to Sweden and won the Dag Nyheter Tournament. That success generated such high hopes for this season, hopes that were virtually buried before the arrival of goalie Gary Inness helped turn things around less than a week ago.

"We pulled together in Sweden and did the job we went for," Gartner said. "Then we got a lot of injuries and we couldn't really unite the team, because not everybody was there on any given night.

"Last week, we were faced with a seven- or eight-game season and we knew exactly what we had to do -- win four or five and we're in, otherwise we're out. The playoffs mean so much to the franchise and to each player.

We're just determined to get there."

Gartner, with 44 goals and 88 points, has earned at least one point in his last 13 games, a club record and the sixth-longest streak in the NHL this year. In those 13 games, he has 14 goals and six assists, and he has remained a steadying influence whether playing with Ryan Walter at center, or Bengt Gustafsson, Tim Tookey or Glen Currie.

"It's an adjustment, because every center is a little different," Gartner said. "Basically, Ryan and I have been together for two years and we know each other pretty well. With Tim or Glen, we can adjust. We just do a little talking before we go out there.

"The most important thing is to make the playoffs. My individual goal is to play as hard as I can every game. If I do that, the goals will come, but I only care about them as far as they help us win. I have no contract bonuses for scoring, only team bonuses for the playoffs.

"This year, I thought I'd be fortunate to get 35 to 40 goals again. But through the hard work of my teammates and myself, I'm past that and I hope I can get a few more, to help us get there."

In Philadelphia Tuesday, Gartner demonstrated the various attributes that earned him all-star status earlier this year and than are quickly bringing him recognition at age 21 as one of the NHL's bright young stars.

His first goal came on a rebound of a power-play drive by Darren Veitch, as he hung in just outside the crease despite the efforts of the Flyers to move him.

On the second, Gartner used his blazing speed to get behind defender Behn Wilson, control Currie's pass and backhand and puck past goalie Pete Peeters.

On No. 3, Gartner skated down the right side and fired a blazing slap shot that caught the far post and caromed into the net.

While the speed and the shot are the flashy items that attract attention, Gartner also is a superb backchecker and an aggressive man in the corners. He has 98 penalty minutes and has fought the likes of Bobby Clarke, Rob Ramage and Dave Silk.

A year ago, in Philadelphia, Gartner sparred with Jack McIlhargey when Robert Picard declined McIlhargey's invitation, and spent 15 minutes in the penalty box, in what seemed an unwise tradeoff.

"I don't think anybody likes to fight," Gartner said. "I don't like to fight. But certain situations arise where I think it's justified, where it can help the team. Pic was my teammate last year and I went to help him. I'd do the same for anybody.

"I like to play an aggressive game: finishing my checks, backchecking hard and forechecking hard. Sometimes when you're in the corners mucking, tempers can get frayed. You should use discretion, particularly now, whether you want to be in the box or on the ice. But you can't always think of all that at the time."

Despite some menacing Flyer elbows and high sticks, the Capitals restrained their retaliatory impulses Tuesday and were richly rewarded/ They were thinking of only one thing: the playoffs.

Coach Gary Green will announce his starting goalie for Thursday's game just before the warmup. The guess here is Mike Palmateer, with Inness facing Hartford at Capital Centre Friday . . . Defenseman Rick Green rubbed his thinning hair and said, "I've been getting bald over the years coming to Philly and worrying about the Flyers. No more" . . . Telecaster Jack Lynch, onetime Capital defenseman, said, "Things have changed. We used to ride the bus to Philly and, if somebody yelled 'Boo' 15 guys would need to change their pants" . . . A stewardess told Gary Green on the flight here from Philadelphia: "I want to tell you what a nice bunch of guys you've got. They're so polite, I didn't even know it was a team. We had the North Stars aboard and they were so obnoxious."