For the the Washington Capitals, it's minus 14 and counting for the NHL playoffs.

And tonight's Capital Centre meeting with the NHL's top team, the Philadelphia Flyers, should give the Capitals a good idea what they must do to succeed in their first postseason appearance: win against the elite teams of the NHL.

Washington faces the Flyers (42-15-8 with 92 points) once more after tonight, on March 20 at Philadelphia. The Flyers have won three of the five times the two teams have played this season. The Capitals also have two games each against the Islanders, Rangers and Boston in the next month. Beating all of those teams would hardly be simple anyway, but in Washington's current physical condition, the task will be even more difficult.

After avoiding key injuries throughout the season, the Capitals have a depleted defense. Tonight, Bryan Murray's team will be without at least two regular defensemen.

Brian Engblom, cut above his left eye by a puck in Wednesday's Edmonton game, will remain in George Washington University Hospital until Sunday or Monday for observation. The eye, which filled with blood from the cut, has stabilized, and Engblom is receiving treatment.

He will be reexamined on Monday, and a decision will made at that time to determine when he will be able to play.

Timo Blomqvist suffered a slight knee strain against Edmonton, and is a possible starter tonight. But Murray will not give the okay until game time. Blomqvist did not play in Washington's Thursday night victory over the Rangers in New York.

Scott Stevens, regularly Engblom's partner, suffered a hyperextended right elbow in that game, and will be out of action one week to 10 days.

Stevens, checked into the boards by Dave Maloney, said he caught his elbow between the board and the plexiglass. "When he went into me, it really hurt, like it was wrenched. It feels a bit weak right now," he said after the game.

Craig Laughlin, who was also injured in the first period against Edmonton when he was checked by Dave Hunter, will have his separated right shoulder X-rayed Monday. Depending upon the healing progress shown, he may return a week from today against the Islanders.

Chris Valentine and Paul MacKinnon were called up from Hershey to substitute for Engblom and Laughlin. Yesterday afternoon, Eric Calder was called up from Cornwall of the Ontario Hockey Association.

"It's a hell of a game to put him in, but it has to be this way," Murray said. "We know he's a possible guy for our future, and he did play a game or two for us last year and didn't look out of place."

"Anytime you have an Engblom and Stevens out, along with Timo and (Darren) Veitch (who has been out most of the year), well that's four of the six defensemen we counted on to start this year and very obviously it will have an effect."

But Murray added that, "I find so often when you're really down in dire straits, people come through. They play more disciplined, more responsibly, so maybe you can get some real value from it."

Murray found Thursday's game "good preparation" for this meeting with the Flyers.

Against the Rangers, Washington displayed the controlled play Murray prefers. Philadelphia, always physical, is also playing disciplined hockey these days. The Flyers are 25-3-3 in their last 31 games.

To a man, the Capitals see the rest of their schedule--nine divisional games out of 14--as a big advantage at this point in the season. "It's better to play the Rangers, Philadelphia, the Islanders now," said Gaetan Duchesne. "It will help us start playing playoff hockey early."