After the Capitals' Dennis Maruk outfoxed Edmonton superstar Wayne Gretzky to score the tying goal with 10 seconds left Wednesday night, Maruk said, "That's a big point for us, tying the top team in the league. It should help us build some momentum for the playoff drive."

On the same subject, Coach Bryan Murray noted, "We've got a long way to go and we have five games left with Pittsburgh and four with the (New York) Rangers. Our objective is to win as many games as possible. We can't worry about the other teams, but we want to move up to 15th or 16th overall this year and if we catch either Pittsburgh or the Rangers, we will consider ourselves fortunate."

These are noble sentiments and, understandably, the only way for a player and coach to look at things. Realistically, however, the inconsistent Capitals do not seem capable of mounting a playoff drive that would overhaul either the Rangers, currently enjoying a 16-point margin, or Pittsburgh, a club with a 15-point edge that has beaten Washington three straight times.

Also, despite Murray's announced goal, the least-rewarding outcome for the Capitals would be a last-place finish in the Patrick Division, accompanied by the best record among the five non-playoff teams. Conversely, the swiftest path to a bright future would be a 21st-place finish and the opportunity to acquire Brian Bellows, the Kitchener forward who is expected to be the top pick in the June entry draft.

A windup as No. 20 or No. 19 would put a top-notch defenseman like Gary Nylund of Portland or Gord Kluzak of Billings in a Washington uniform. Obviously, the Capitals need backline help, but they think that may already be on the way in the person of Peter Andersson, a Swedish defenseman who was drafted in 1980.

Andersson was selected to the all-star team in the recent World Junior Tournament, despite Sweden's fifth-place finish, and it was a widespread opinion among scouts at that tourney that Andersson can move right in and be a good NHL defenseman. He is finishing an army tour and will report to the Capitals in September.

"To be competitive in this division, there are certain types of players you have to have, tough players with talent who will not be intimidated," said Washington General Manager Roger Crozier. "You can't get the type of people you want through a deal, because other clubs find it so hard to give them up. So, basically, the only way to get them is through the draft.

"We've drafted pretty well. We have three players we picked last summer on the team now--Bobby Carpenter, Gaetan Duchesne and Chris Valentine--and several others like Eric Calder, Mike Siltala and Jim McGeough could help us in the future.

"If we could get a Bellows and Peter Andersson is close to a Nylund, then we would really have jumped forward. Then, all of a sudden you can turn things around. Other than the Islanders, there is no reason we shouldn't be able to be competitive in our division. Pittsburgh, Philly and the Rangers are quite a bit ahead of us now, but there's no reason we can't be competitive with them."

Crozier, of course, is not aiming--at least publicly--to grab first place in the tightly packed "Bellows Division," where the Capitals at 29 points share second place with Hartford, three points behind Colorado and one ahead of Detroit, before those two teams played last night. Neither is he going to yield that first-round pick for the type of offer he has been receiving so persistently from other clubs.

"On the phone, some things can be tempting, but you have to bite your tongue," Crozier said. "Nobody is offering a Bellows or a Nylund."

Colorado, Hartford and Detroit offer mute testimony to the substance of those offers. All traded their No. 1 picks for players who have proven to be of minimal assistance, a situation that leaves Washington as the only also-ran with a vested interest in finishing last.

The Capitals have a nucleus of solid players in Maruk, Ryan Walter, Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson and Rick Green. They also have a number of promising youngsters, with Carpenter the most prominent. What they lack is the overall depth that has made the Islanders a dominant force over the last three seasons.

"The nucleus of talent on the Capitals can stack up with the nucleus of talent on most any team in the league, at least up to about the ninth player," NHL president John Ziegler said the other day. "The better teams are solid through about 15 players. On the really good teams, like the Islanders, you can interchange the 20th player with the 15th and not miss much."

Clarence Campbell, Ziegler's predecessor, once said that any team that missed the playoffs three years in a row was deserving of special help from the league. If the Capitals fail this year, it would be the eighth straight season, but Ziegler warns not to expect any assistance.

"When where you finish is so important an economic determinant, it is difficult to legislate anything to help a last-place team," Ziegler said. "The other clubs do not want to change places. Besides, I am a great believer in laissez faire. I don't believe you can legislate judgment with respect to specifics."

Owner Abe Pollin is willing to trade the No. 1 choice, but only for top talent. He talks of "vultures" trying to feed on the Capitals and says it will not happen. Pollin's chief problem now seems to be absorbing the financial losses that figure to accompany a meaningless last half of the season.

One of the most attractive games of the season was played Wednesday night against Edmonton and its young star, Wayne Gretzky. Typical of the Capitals' bad fortune, the worst snowstorm of the winter kept the crowd to 3,284, lowest turnout in team history, on a night that ordinarily would have produced a near-sellout.

Meanwhile, for long-suffering Capitals fans, the immediate future seems to hold the same conundrum as it does for management: if you win games, you lose in the long run. The loyalists plan to root for victories, no matter the cost.

"You can't go out there and root against the team, even if Brian Bellows is the consolation prize," said Ted Mavrikes of Glenn Dale, who engineered the successful Yvon Labre Night that earned $2,000 for Ronald McDonald House. "But at this point, I'd certainly hang on to the No. 1 pick."

"You can't root for Brian Bellows," said George Henschel of Springfield, president of the Capitals Fan Club. "I can't see myself for three months rooting if we get a goal behind for the other team to pour it on. The caliber of our young guys is pretty high and I think there's a lot of promise, even without Bellows."

So does Crozier. But drafting Bellows would add some authority to the Capitals' traditional cry of "Wait till next year."