The winner of the season series and confidence rights for a possible matchup in the Patrick Division playoff final will be determined tonight when the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers collide at the Spectrum.

The Capitals, of course, can use the two points in their continuing struggle for second place with the New York Islanders. Philadelphia is close to wrapping up the first sport.

Each team has won three games, with the Capitals earning a 4-3 victory in the most recent meeting at Capital Centre March 5. That was probably Washington's most praise-worthy victory of the season, since the Capitals were playing without Brian Engblom, Scott Stevens, Timo Blomqvist and Craig Laughlin.

All of those players are back in the lineup and only right wing Ken Houston, with strained ligaments in the right knee, will be absent tonight. His size and strength, of course, will be missed against the physical Flyers.

Games with Philadelphia invariably include an assortment of penalties, which places considerable responsibility on the power-play and penalty-killing units. In the last meeting, the Capitals' success was due in large part to their ability to kill successfully all five of the Flyers' extra-man opportunities.

Over the last seven games, of which Washington has won six, opponents have connected only twice in 25 power-play chances. On the season, the Capitals rank fourth in the NHL with a success ratio of 81.3 percent, trailing only the Flyers, Islanders and Buffalo. That is a distinct turnabout from last season, when the Capitals ranked ninth in penalty killing at 78.3 percent.

Doug Jarvis, somewhat overlooked along with Laughlin in the trade that brought Rod Langway and Englbom here from Montreal, is recognized as one of the finest penalty killers in the NHL. Jarvis, whose usual partner is Gaetan Duchesne, will be playing his 633rd straight game tonight, third-longest-iron-man string in NHL history. The other regular twosome is Bobby Gould and Glen Currie.

While the Capitals' penalty killing has been excellent all season, it has been especially effective in recent weeks, as increased agressiveness frequently has led to long periods of play in the other team's end, as well as some good short-handed chances.

That was one of the keys to Philadelphia's Stanley Cup triumphs in 1974 and 1975 -- the ability to disrupt opponent's power plays, of which there were many, by mounting short-handed scoring threats.

"We're playing the same four guys basically up front and they're gaining confidence," said Coach Bryan Murray. "Instead of just clearing the puck, they're willing to hold onto it and make something happen.

"Teams are becoming aware of what we can do and they start playing defensively on the power play. When you get a short-handed scoring chance, it pulls in their horns quite a bit. Against Boston, when we'd get the puck, they'd bail out."

The Bruins failed to score on seven extra-man chances in Washington's two victories last week.

"If you get a chance to forecheck them in their end, you do," Jarvis said. "If a good pass is made, you come back. But if you get on them in a hurry and force them to make a bad pass, you waste a lot of time while they regroup.

"We seem to be executing better and playing more agressively, and that comes from confidence.It's a good way if you can do it, but you don't want to put yourself in a position where one pass gives them a three-on-two."