In Nov. 11, when Bryan Murray became coach of the Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins earned a 3-2 victory at Capital Centre and led Washington by 16 points.

On Jan. 23, the Capitals trailed Pittsburgh by 17 points and speculation centered not on a playoff berth but on whether Washington would finish last overall and be in a position to draft highly regarded wing Brian Bellows.

Today, despite two straight disheartening defeats, the Capitals are playing well enough, and the Penguins are floundering sufficiently, for a first playoff game in Washington to be within longshot capabilities.

Pittsburgh holds an 11-point lead, but the Penguins are winless in their last seven games. Additionally, they must play their next nine against the NHL's elite, those teams that are above the .500 mark.

Washington, meanwhile, has been playing well despite being unable to get more than three of its 50 shots past Colorado goalie Chico Resch in bowing, 5-3, Sunday. With a favorable schedule the rest of the way and injuries no problem at the moment, the Capitals are ready to mount a run at the Penguins.

Each team has 22 games left, including three against each other, with two of those in Washington. The Capitals have taken their last two meetings from Pittsburgh.

While Pittsburgh's remaining schedule is divided equally home and away, the Capitals have 13 left at Capital Centre, only nine on the road. While the Penguins have just eight games against sub-.500 opponents, the Capitals have 11.

"I'm disappointed with that defeat in Denver, because we should have won and closed within single figures, but I still think we've got a heck of a shot at it," Murray said. "Pittsburgh has a tough schedule left. We're about the only so-called easy team they play much, and we don't think they'll find us easy."

Sunday's game in Denver left General Manager Roger Crozier with mixed emotions.

"It was discouraging because we lost, but encouraging because we played so well," Crozier said. "This organization's future is so much brighter than that organization (Colorado). They have nothing in the minors and not much in the draft."

The Rockies gave up the No. 1 choice in the 1982 draft, which figures to be Bellows, to Boston in exchange for winger Dwight Foster, who scored his eighth goal Sunday. They also have traded away their No. 1 pick in 1983 to the New York Islanders, for defenseman Bob Lorimer and center Dave Cameron, no supertalents, either.

The Capitals, on the other hand, have retained their top draft choices despite considerable pressure to deal them away. Making the playoffs would diminish the value of the No. 1 selection, but the Capitals are not worrying about that. After seven straight seasons without a playoff spot, postseason competition is the No. 1 priority.

The one cloud on the Capitals' horizon at the moment is the physical condition of Ryan Walter and Chris Valentine, both of whom skated on rubbery legs in the third period at Denver. It is hoped the upcoming schedule, with only a Wednesday contest here against Los Angeles in the next five days, will provide needed rest.

"We need a right wing to spell Chris," Murray said. "He's okay on the power play, but he can't go a regular shift two nights in a row. And with Ryan, I guess we'll just have to play him in games and not let him practice. The toughest thing in the world is trying to get Ryan to take it easy."