Ask Herb Brooks, coach of the New York Rangers, about his team's race against the Capitals, and he comes back with a steely blue gaze, shaking his head slightly. "It's not the Rangers and the Capitals. It's got to be Philadelphia, the Islanders, the Rangers and the Capitals," he said. "And don't count out Pittsburgh. This is not a two-team divisional race."

After yesterday's 7-2 loss, the Capitals are three points ahead of the Rangers. They trail Patrick Division-leading Philadelphia by five. And Brooks indicated the Capitals aren't likely to fall far behind.

"The fact that we had some snap out there tonight was very representative of the caliber of club we're playing," he said. "Before the game, we talked about what a fine team we were facing."

Last time these two teams met, the Rangers blew their lead in the third period.

"It was mentioned in the dressing room," said Chris Kontos, who was not with the Rangers that Dec. 10 game, "something about the killer instinct and once we get the lead, to make it greater."

Those words must have made an impression on Kontos, just up from the Ontario Hockey League, who scored his first NHL goal in the third period, making the Rangers' lead 5-2.

New York has never been able to take the Capitals lightly. "For some reason, this team has always given us trouble, especially in New York," said defenseman Tom Laidlaw. "But now, they're such a different club, things are more difficult."

Laidlaw sees the Capitals close to the Rangers' heels for the rest of the season. "I don't want to cut them up or anything, but they're not a great team, like a Montreal," he said. "But the Capitals have been down for so long, and the three or four guys they added make so much difference, you can see how confident they've gotten, and they'll be more trouble for us."

Players who come from Montreal, he said--notably Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin--are so accustomed to winning, "it has to rub off."

Anders Hedberg believes the Capitals may have surprised themselves this season.

"They're so much more stable, and confident out there, they are not the same team," he said. "You can't count them out at all. Maybe the score was 7-2, but it was not a 7-2 game at all. We had to push against them every minute. When they got behind, they pressed, maybe a bit too hard. But you have to do that, try to generate some offense. It didn't work for them, but they never let up."

Hedberg, like Brooks, sees the Capitals-Rangers matchup as a part of the overall four-club race. "It's going to be all bunched together, all the way to the end," he said. "That's great."

Kontos, who has been with the Rangers only three games, and had little knowledge of the Capitals until yesterday afternoon, said, "It'll probably be a four-team race, but we're starting to make a run now, and I think we'll pass the Capitals right by. At least I hope so."