"What will we do against Wayne Gretzky?" is the standard question NHL coaches ask themselves when the Edmonton Oilers are on the schedule. Some coaches insist they must deal with all the Oilers, not just No. 99, but any game plan must focus on the league's most recognized player.

Tonight, the Washington Capitals, who were defeated in Edmonton a week ago, will get their third look of the season at Gretzky and his teammates, in Edmonton's only appearance of the year in Washington.

Bryan Murray, always candid and succinct, said yesterday, "What can you do against Gretzky? You let him entertain the crowd. That is, in his own end.

"Seriously, all you can try to do is keep the puck away from him as much as you can and try to put him against some of our pretty good offensive players."

Gretzky has spent fewer minutes per game on ice this season than last year, but he's hardly doing shabbily. He still leads the league's scoring race overall, and in goals scored (55 goals, 101 assists).

Against Washington last week he picked up one assist and two goals. Last November, also in Edmonton, Gretzky got one goal, but later failed to put a third-period penalty shot past Pat Riggin, a shot that could have spoiled the Capitals' tie.

"He's Gretzky," Riggin said. "You know what he can do and try to be ready for it. You hope you guess right."

Doug Jarvis looks at playing Gretzky as a challenge. "It's tough to check, because he covers the whole ice so well and sets up his wingers. It takes an entire line combination to play against Wayne's line."

But concentration on Gretzky, Jarvis pointed out, shouldn't interfere with the team's main purpose of winning. "At the end of the night, if Gretzky has no goals or assists, but you've lost the game, what have you accomplished?"

Jarvis said the only way to play Gretzky is to "be always aware of where he is and what he's trying to do. No gimmicks or tricks will stop him. You just have to stay alert."

Last week, Murray said, "Gretzky hung at the blueline more than I had seen him do before, and he went at it (play) very well without the puck. He's improved defensively, which is something he's worked hard at. He's become very responsible in that area."

Although Murray has prepared his players for a stop-Gretzky mission, he said last week he did not hone in solely on Gretzky. "Unfortunately, when you play Edmonton, you do have to concentrate on him, but their second line of (Mark) Messier, (Ken) Linseman and (Glenn) Anderson is a pretty good one. For a lot of teams, it would be a good first line," he said. "To be truthful, I did not get all geared up only for the Gretzky line."

Forcing Gretzky to pass the puck sooner and putting him in the position of having to play defensively may be the only ways to cut down his production.

"Beyond that, you know he's going to do all the things he always does. He and his linemates are going to get the puck," Murray said. "Last week, even against our pretty good players, he comes up with those two goals, one a tipin. He's the only guy in the league who could make it."

Yet Murray is confident of a victory over Edmonton. "A week ago, they (Oilers) had played the night before, and were ready for us. We had come off a few days of not skating. But now we're coming fresh into our own building. That's an advantage for us."

Among the Capitals' last 16 games are 10 against Patrick Division teams, including the Rangers Thursday night in New York and Philadelphia at Capital Centre on Saturday . . . The Islanders, in second place and two points ahead of the Capitals after last night's game in Montreal, now have 14 games remaining, just three of them against nondivisional clubs. "Our schedule is really to our advantage," Murray said. "We've got the chance to win some pretty good games, and by time the playoffs are here, we should be able to be right on top of our game. Right now we're trying to get a couple of the guys to start peaking a bit, guys like Dennis (Maruk), Gus (Bengt Gustafsson) and (Ken) Houston. They'll be important."