Anything-thing can happen in the spring-spring, as Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing showed us after seven years of trying-trying. The Capitals, to name other slow learners, needed nine years to make it into the hockey playoffs. It won't be long now before we know if much is to come of these springtime affairs in the nation's capital.

Panda fans will keep a weather eye on Ling-Ling with hopes to spot her eating pickles a la mode. Otherwise, it's hard to tell what's up, because pandas are notoriously shy (though Ling-Ling is direct in beating the bejabbers out of her fumbling-fumbling den mate) and can't be counted on to send out invitations to the baby shower.

"Playoff tickets will go on sale between periods of Wednesday night's game with Vancouver," said the Capitals' public relations director, Lou Corletto. With only seven games left in the NHL regular season--three at home this week before next Wednesday's game here with the Islanders--the Capitals are barely two weeks away from the first playoff game in their history.

A wise guy might say pandas would shoot par at Augusta before the Capitals would win the Stanley Cup. But romance is in the air. Ling-Ling had her fling-fling taped for the 6 o'clock news. Anything goes. At lunch yesterday, the coach, Bryan Murray, said, "We are a legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup."

This isn't romantic bullfeathers spread to nourish the sale of playoff tickets. When Murray's team is terrible, he says so. If he says the Capitals walk with the Islanders, it is time to look for the little signs of a blessed event on the way.

"We've handled the best teams in the league well," Murray said. "We've beaten Boston three in a row. We've beaten the Flyers four of the last five. We had five of six points from Chicago earlier on."

But what about the Islanders? The last two times, both on the Islanders' ice, the three-times-running Stanley Cup champions beat the Capitals, 8-3 and 6-2.

"The Islanders outplayed us badly. Now there's no question they feel they can handle us. The only good out of it was that it was a big week for us, anyway. After losing up there, we turned it around and beat Boston and the Flyers. Some of our people could have packed it in, but they came back and we're still tied with the Islanders for second."

How important is second place with its reward of three home games in a five-game playoff series with the division's third-place finisher?

"It's not absolutely critical that we get second. It would be nice for the recognition it would bring to the team and the organization. To finish ahead of the Islanders would be a heckuva accomplishment. And if we get second, we have a better shot at the Islanders. Home ice against that team will be important because now they're playing as well as anyone. They beat the Flyers, 9-2, over the weekend."

Are the Islanders in a playoff frame of mind?

"They're using the same people and the same system, but they're playing more intensely. If that's a playoff frame of mind, then that's what they're in."

Under Murray the last two seasons, the Capitals are 8-4 against the division-leading Flyers but 2-9-2 against the Islanders.

"With the Flyers, we take advantage of our quickness. There's not that big a difference between us and the Islanders in team speed . . . Against the Islanders the last time, we couldn't stop the Trottier line. We thought we had good match ups, but it didn't show. Now we've made an adjustment."

Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Bob Bourne have 104 goals and 147 assists this season. Hoping to use speed and puck-handling against them, Murray used Doug Jarvis, Bengt Gustafsson and Mike Gartner. What is Murray's adjustment?

"The last four or five games, I've had a line of Jarvis, Glen Currie and Bobby Gould. Our three best checkers. We'll go with that line against the Trottier line. Dennis Maruk with Gustafsson and Gartner--they've been scoring all the big goals recently."

The home-ice advantage is important emotionally with the zealots' screaming support. It is more important tactically. The home team gets the last line change. If the Trottier line goes out at Capital Centre, Murray can send the Jarvis line. On the Islanders' ice, the champions can use Trottier when they catch the Capitals with a line they want to attack.

Murray, 40, has been a pro coach only four seasons. Now he sees the Stanley Cup as a real possibility, not a dream. He knows his team can play with the Flyers. But to get a shot at the Flyers and the conference championship (after which would come Chicago, as long as we're speculating), the Capitals first have to handle the Islanders.

In the last month, Murray has scouted three Islanders games in person. Abe Pollin, the Capitals' owner, has a satellite-TV dish at the Capital Centre which Murray uses to watch (and tape) Islanders' telecasts.

"We have to keep playing well against even teams out of the playoffs," Murray said. "Then second place is going to come down to that game next Wednesday with the Islanders. That's the way it ought to be."