First place in the Patrick Division is the immediate reward to the winner of tonight's Capital Centre contest between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers.

There also are long-range implications, both concerning this game and the Capitals' Thursday visit to the New York Islanders. Washington has not been able to beat either Patrick power this season, managing only a tie in three games with the Flyers and losing both meetings with the Islanders.

"We have to show we can beat them," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "It's important to beat them to be in the race and to show we're in the ballpark with them. We certainly can't expect to finish first if we can't handle them."

The Flyers climbed into a first-place tie with Washington Sunday by thrashing the Capitals, 7-4, at the Spectrum. Philadelphia came out living up to its nickname, while Washington was a very tired team in its sixth game in nine days. Both clubs expect a different emotional feeling tonight.

"We got pumped up for Washington and I'm sure Washington will be just as pumped up Wednesday," said Flyer Tim Kerr, who scored three times. "That was the biggest game of the year for us, because we hadn't won much lately and they've been coming on."

Murray is hoping that Sunday's result and a chance to rest following the demands of the pre-Christmas schedule will inspire a turnabout.

"I don't think we'll say it's the most important game of the year," Murray said. "I was surprised by that statement, although I guess Philly felt it had to turn things around. I do think we'll get up pretty good. The guys have had a day off and in some cases two (the Capitals had an optional practice Monday morning), and a chance to get away from hockey.

"Coming back, I'm sure they'll realize it's the last break they're likely to get. This is like a second start. We're almost at the second half and playing within our division, we want to get rolling again."

The immediate problem is trying to control Kerr, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound right wing who has collected five goals in the three games against Washington and has a total of 28 in 31 games, following a 54-goal season a year ago.

Although both Kerr and Flyers Coach Mike Keenan complained that the Capitals had mistreated the big forward Sunday, there was no evidence that Washington's tactics hindered him around the net.

"I hear about Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy being bumped around, but those guys aren't taking anything like the abuse that Tim Kerr takes in every game," Keenan said. "I'd like to see him turn around and dish a little out himself, but we have to keep in mind that he's not very valuable to us sitting in the penalty box."

"I'm constantly being cross-checked in front of the net and it seemed like I was being tackled by the legs pretty often Sunday," Kerr said. "I hope they start to call it, but if they don't, there's nothing I can do.

"People ask me why I don't get mad and try to punch out the guys who are doing it. Well, I'm still in one piece, so I guess I can take it. That's why you wear equipment."

Kerr was a bargain acquisition by Keith Allen, then the Flyers' general manager, in 1979. That was the year of the six-round draft and Kerr, following a 17-goal junior season in Kingston, Ontario, was ignored.

While Washington was paying big dollars to two others who had been bypassed, center Tim Tookey and defenseman Howard Walker, Allen was signing Kerr for a mere $10,000 bonus.

Even that was a gamble, because in addition to Kerr's meager production, he had a history of not keeping himself in the best of shape. As Kerr showed Sunday in outmaneuvering Rod Langway to score on a breakaway, times have changed.

"We talked about Tim Kerr in the pregame meeting in Philadelphia," Murray said, "but since we hadn't played the Flyers for so long, maybe we didn't realize how well he was playing. And maybe his size and strength were too much of a factor.

"(Gaetan) Duchesne for one, and also Scotty (Stevens) and Rod are going to have to do an awfully big job against him . . .

"Even more important, the other night we let them handle the puck freely and they got it to Kerr pretty easily. We let them free wheel too much. This time we have to tighten up.

"There's no question fatigue was a factor Sunday. The wear and tear caught up with a few people. I thought some of them looked tired, just looking in their faces. A big part of our game is forechecking and hustle, and it hasn't been evident since the second period in Montreal (on Thursday)."

In a shift, Murray will put Peter Andersson back on defense tonight. Andersson had played at left wing for several games before sitting out Sunday's contest.

"I just wanted Peter to play and be involved," Murray said. "But he's obviously not as familiar with playing the wing and it started to show. Now it's time to put him on the blueline and see how well he can play."