The two best defensive teams in the National Hockey League forgot the meaning of the word tonight.

With Tim Kerr scoring three goals and Murray Craven two, the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Washington Capitals, 7-4, and tied the losers for first place in the Patrick Division.

After a two-day break, the same teams will meet at Capital Centre Wednesday night. Asked if he liked the back-to-back scheduling, Washington Coach Bryan Murray replied, "No, not after the way we played tonight.

"They made us look like they were a great hockey club and we were mediocre. There was no intent on our part to win the hockey game. I can't remember a check being thrown by one of our players. But we have played a lot of games lately and I'm not going to be critical after that streak."

The Capitals had been undefeated in their last eight games, had lost only one of their previous 15 and had not lost on the road in nine games.

It was obvious during Saturday's 7-5 victory over St. Louis that the Capitals' steamroller was running out of steam, however. It quickly became apparent tonight that six games in nine days had made Washington a very tired team.

Craven and Kerr scored in the first four minutes and the Capitals never caught up, although it was only 2-1 after the first period, thanks to a couple of breaks that benefited the visitors.

When Kerr and Derrick Smith scored in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the second period, any hopes of a comeback were dashed.

"It was a long night," said Washington goalie Pat Riggin. "We got off to a bad start, two goals in the first five minutes, and things didn't get much better."

Craven's opening goal set the tone of a forgettable night for the visitors. As the Capitals' Timo Blomqvist started up ice, he was hooked by Craven and spun around. Rick Tocchet knocked the puck away and Craven recovered and beat Riggin from the left wing circle at 1:35, on the Flyers' second shot.

"I was pretty surprised there was no whistle," Blomqvist said. "It was a bad way to start."

It quickly got worse. When Philadelphia's Mark Howe skated down the middle, defenseman Mike McEwen knocked the puck off his stick. It went to Kerr for an easy score at 3:33.

Later in the period, Kerr fanned on an open shot in front. He shoved the puck forward with his left skate and Riggin appeared to cover it. Kerr rapped Riggin's glove with his stick and either the glove or the stick propelled the puck into the net. Referee Kerry Fraser ruled that Kerr's stick did not touch the puck and disallowed the score.

"I was positive I hit it," Kerr said. "If I wind up with 49 (goals), it'll bother me, but things like that even up."

They did not immediately even up, because the Flyers soon just missed again. Ilkka Sinisalo sent a rebound toward the half-open net, but the goal posts were dislodged by Philadelphia's Thomas Eriksson.

Alan Haworth then converted Bryan Erickson's feed from behind the Flyers' net into a goal for Washington.

Sixty-six seconds into the second period, a pass by Dave Poulin slid between defender Scott Stevens' skates to Kerr for an easy tap-in. Not long after, Riggin blocked a shot by Peter Zezel and Smith netted the rebound for a 4-1 lead.

After Mike Gartner got his 20th goal by deflecting Bob Carpenter's shot, Kerr completed his hat trick. He put a nifty fake on defenseman Rod Langway, skated in and lifted the puck over Riggin's sore right arm.

It was Kerr's second hat trick of the season, fourth of his career, and gave him 28 goals in 31 games. It was the first three-goal game by a Flyer against Washington since Bill Barber's in 1976.

"This was a good time to get it," Kerr said. "They were the hottest team in the league coming in here and we've been struggling, but we got pumped up for this one. It was the biggest game of the year for us and it's a great confidence builder."

Before the second period ended, Craven scored from a scramble in front to make it 6-2. Then Ross Fitzpatrick, called up from Hershey today, used a screen by Zezel for a power play goal in the third period.

Goals by Dave Christian and McEwen provided little consolation for the Capitals. But at least they kept the Flyers from reaching double figures, which seemed a reasonable development at midgame.

One of the Flyers had no reason for celebration. That was defenseman Mike Stothers, making his NHL debut. Stothers was struck in the right eye by a shot by McEwen in the second period and was carried off on a stretcher. Afterward, with three stitches on the bridge of his nose and 10 above the eye, Stothers was thankful he merely had a headache.

"Their defenseman (McEwen) took a shot and it wasn't that fast, but their forward was in my way and I didn't see it coming until the last second," Stothers said. "It caught me in the eye and I was afraid for a while it might be serious. Thank God it wasn't."

Kerr and Riggin exchanged words late in the game after Kerr skated through the crease, but as Riggin said, "It was nothing."

The Flyers entered the game with the NHL's best goals-against mark, 2.88 per game, and the Capitals had allowed 3.06 a game. But for tonight, it was a Christmas feast for the offense.