It appears that the Washington Capitals will be participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs before they find a way to beat a team coached by Scotty Bowman.

Bowman's Buffalo Sabres won at Capital Centre Saturday night, 4-2, to complete a three-game season sweep of the Capitals, just as they did a year ago. Washington has beaten every other team in the National Hockey League at least twice since it last defeated the Sabres on April 4, 1978. The overall series is 2-31-5.

Bowman, 49, has won 616 games as a coach at St. Louis, Montreal and Buffalo. His success ratio of .679 is the highest in NHL history and the Capitals are responsible for much of it.

At Montreal from the Capitals' inception in 1974 until 1979, Bowman built a 30-0-2 record against Washington. Since Bowman moved to Buffalo as general manager in 1979, the Sabres have not lost to the Capitals and they have won all nine meetings in which he has been behind the bench.

"It is kind of amazing the way it's gone," Bowman said after his latest success here. "Certainly, Washington has been in a position to win a lot of those games. I remember one, on the last day of the season here with a sellout crowd, in a game that didn't really mean anything to us, where Washington was ahead, 3-2, with about two minutes left. We tied it and then (Guy) Lafleur won it."

That contest occurred on April 4, 1976, and it would be four more years, with Bowman gone, before the Capitals were able to beat the Canadiens.

Bowman has yielded the Buffalo coaching duties on occasion, with Roger Neilson running things for one season and Jim Roberts for a few months, but he is firmly in command now and enjoying coaching as much as ever before.

"It's been an exciting season," said Bowman, whose Sabres are unbeaten in their last six games and closing in on second-place Montreal in the Adams Division. "I like to see young guys getting better.

"We've had kids like (Mike) Moller, (Sean) McKenna and (Gilles) Hamel who have improved a great deal just since Christmas. And (Hannu) Virta and (Phil) Housley are doing a heck of a job on our defense. We may be a couple of years away, but they're going to be interesting years."

Virta and Housley scored breakaway goals as the Sabres took advantage of Washington mistakes Saturday night to lead, 3-2. Then, for the second straight night Buffalo shut down the Capitals' offense in the third period and finally settled things when Tony McKegney converted Gil Perreault's pass on a two-on-one break with 1:30 remaining.

"We've played 135 periods this year and that's the best, as far as skating, shutting down, intensity and good passing," Bowman said.

It was the Capitals' fourth straight home loss and their fifth in six Centre games since Philadelphia ended their 14-game unbeaten streak on Dec. 26.

"I thought this was our best effort at home in several weeks as far as work, creating something and looking after our own end," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "But we can't seem to get good shots when we get a break and when we turn the puck over, they capitalize."

Both Washington goals, by Greg Theberge and Dennis Maruk, came during four-on-three power-play situations. The rest of the night, the Capitals had few good opportunities and goalie Bob Sauve, never a loser to Washington in 12 appearances, had the necessary answers.

The Capitals face the Flyers here Tuesday, then travel to Chicago Wednesday for a televised contest. The schedule finally eases up a bit later in the week with home games against two struggling teams, Quebec on Friday and New Jersey Sunday night.