Surprisingly, considering the intense rivalry that has developed, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers never have played a capacity crowd at Capital Centre.

That will change tonight, when the maximum 18,130 will watch that regular-season hockey rarity, a truly big game.

A victory would give the Capitals at least a tie for second place in the Patrick Division. They share third with Philadelphia, one point behind the Rangers and three behind the Islanders.

Although the losing coach no doubt will find reason to downgrade the result, the preparation by New York's Herb Brooks and Washington's Bryan Murray has been sufficient to underline the importance of the game.

Brooks was here Thursday to watch the Capitals beat Pittsburgh, 9-1; two weeks ago, he was in Minnesota when Washington won, 4-0. His unreserved comment: "The Capitals are for real."

Murray has watched the Rangers on cable TV as well as film and he said yesterday, "It's a big one, no question. It puts you in the driver's seat if you win. They have a few more road games left than we do and, with the Flyers losing in Calgary (Thursday), the way is open for us.

"We haven't played them in a long time (since Jan. 2), but I've watched a lot of tapes. (Pierre) Larouche has been playing extremely well and with (Mike) Rogers and now (Blaine) Stoughton, the Rangers are a threat in every game with that offense."

Much of the Capitals' offensive punch in recent games has centered around the line of Bob Carpenter, Alan Haworth and Bryan Erickson. In Washington's past seven games, Carpenter and Haworth each have scored four goals, and new linemate Erickson scored twice against Pittsburgh.

Carpenter, after a slow start, caused in large part by a dislocated shoulder, has become an important contributor. His goal against the Penguins was his 20th of the season and, although that does not match the 32 he scored each of his first two seasons, it is a big jump from the two he managed in the first quarter of this one. Carpenter has produced a goal in each of Washington's last three meetings with the Rangers, including the winner in a 3-1 decision here Nov. 25.

"This is a key game for us to win, because it will put us in contention for first place," Carpenter said. "And chances are, we'll play them in the playoffs, so we can establish ourselves against them now.

"It would be a great accomplishment for this team to finish first. We have a lot of home games left, but we've got to win them. Maybe Vancouver (a 3-2 loss on Tuesday) was a good lesson for us.

"We have to key on the Rangers' forecheckers and play a good defensive game, not let them get their motion going. They have a lot of scoring power, but things are starting to happen for us now. We're close to the playoffs and everybody can feel it."

Murray is satisfied that Carpenter is playing at a high level, although he knows the youngster's best years are still ahead of him. An example of Carpenter's dedication is his improved plus-minus rating. Over the last 16 games, he has a plus-13 figure, while being on ice for only three goals by the opposition.

"Bobby is playing harder and he's definitely more responsible," Murray said. "He's carrying the puck up the middle more and we're encouraging him to attack the blueline. If he holds the puck longer before deciding whether to shoot or make the play, he'll be that much better."

The Rangers have won all three meetings in New York this year, with the Capitals winning two and tying one here.

"The matchups are fairly important against the Rangers and the crowd becomes a real factor," Murray said. "The emotion from the fans helps the home team and I think it's great we're sold out for this one."

Defenseman Darren Veitch, recovered from a cracked rib, played the first of three weekend games for Hershey last night. He rejoins the Capitals Monday . . . Erickson, the bridge of his nose cracked by Kevin McCarthy's sucker punch Thursday, tried a visor in practice yesterday, but discarded it as "not very comfortable" . . . Pat Riggin will return to the Capitals' nets tonight after a one-game break . . . Gary Sampson probably will play again, with Greg Adams in the stands.