The selection of four Washington players for the National Hockey League All-Star Game is evidence of the recognition the Capitals have gained this season, along with their status as the second-best team in the NHL standings at the two-thirds mark of the season.

Hard work, meticulous preparation and good health have propelled the Capitals into a position where they must be regarded as prime contenders for the Stanley Cup presently held by Edmonton.

Whether the Capitals are as good as their 33-13-8 record, however, must await the NHL's second season, the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin April 10.

Regular-season points are nice, but they do not guarantee immortality. With the current unbalanced schedule, it is possible to feast on teams that are encountered only occasionally. A head-to-head, best-of-seven playoff series is something else.

Just ask the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, 1-2 in the regular season of 1982-83; neither was around for the Stanley Cup final.

"You're only as good as your performance in the playoffs," team captain Rod Langway said. "You play good in the regular season only to reach the playoffs.

"I think we're in the top four. Edmonton, us, Buffalo and Philly are all fighting for first. But it all comes down to how solid you are in the playoffs.

"You have to have a good power play, good penalty killing and good goaltending. We lost it because of that last year.

"In raw talent, wheels and dedication, we're right up there with anybody. But the playoffs are a whole new season. We're a legitimate contender, no doubt. But being a contender and doing something in the playoffs are two different things."

Right wing Mike Gartner thinks the disappointments of the last two playoff encounters with the New York Islanders will work in the Capitals' favor this time around.

"We gained some valuable experience in the playoffs," Gartner said. "You learn from losing; you learn to win. It's no fluke that we're playing well. Before, we knew we could win, but this year we expect to win.

"I think we're capable of going to the final. We still have a bit of an identity problem around the league, but there's one way to turn that around -- win the big one."

Although the Capitals led the NHL defensively last season, they ranked 12th offensively. Their inability to take advantage of scoring chances contributed to their downfall against the Islanders. This year, while continuing to play solid defense -- ranking a close No. 2 behind Buffalo -- they have made a big jump offensively, to No. 6.

"To this point, we've proven that against good clubs, we're a very good club," Coach Bryan Murray said. "Certainly, night after night we're close to where we are in the standings.

"Defensively, we have to be regarded right near the top. A guy will usually have to make an excellent play to get a scoring chance against us and, when he does get a shot, we're pretty quick to clear the puck.

"And we're getting more chances offensively. We're not hurting on offense the way we were afraid we would when the season began, although we're still not the kind of team that is going to blow anybody out.

"I think a lot of the offense happened because of our defense. We're forechecking and taking the body. Our game centers around being aggressive to the puck."

Being aggressive to the puck and being aggressive to the opposition are two different things. Murray realizes there is room for improvement in that area. If there was one request Santa Claus -- alias General Manager David Poile -- failed to fill, it was the desire for a big, tough winger.

"We could use maybe one more forward that is either a goal scorer or a big, strong type of guy," Murray said. "Somebody who is assertive in front of the net and in the corners.

"In the playoffs, that might be the guy we need more than anything. We get bumped a lot, but most guys take it, give the odd one back and keep playing. A year ago, when we got bumped, some guys backed off and didn't play as well. That's not the case now, but I'd still rather be the hitter than the receiver."

Of the Capitals' 13 defeats, only four have come to sub.-.500 teams, two of those to the New York Rangers before they were decimated by injuries. That reflects Murray's intense preparation for each game on the schedule.

"When I first came here, a key point we talked about was the importance of beating any team that's below you," Murray said. "If you win those games and split with the stronger teams like the Flyers and Islanders, you'll be in a good position at the end of the year.

"It's a philosophy we've jumped on. The preparation Langway, (Doug) Jarvis and Gartner do is a big factor. They come to play, ready for every game in every way, shape or form."

A plus for Washington when the playoffs arrive is the stress on defensive play. Some teams that tend to play wide-open in the regular season try to tighten up for the Stanley Cup and find the transition difficult.

On the other hand, despite their defensive orientation, the Capitals basically are a skating team. As the Islanders have shown, they are vulnerable to the clutch-and-grab tactics that seem to be condoned in playoff games.

With the possible exception of Edmonton Coach Glen Sather, who is reluctant to compliment any opponents, opposing coaches and players have professed considerable respect for Washington.

"They keep coming at you all the time," Toronto Coach Dan Maloney said. "They have a system and they stick to it. They get the puck out of their end very quickly, then they take the middle away from you and make it tough for you to move the puck."

"They've been fortunate not to have many injuries," Islanders Coach Al Arbour said. "But they've got four lines working hard, taking the body, interfering, doing all the little things that mean something in the win column."

If the Capitals deserve their current No. 2 billing behind Edmonton, as the record indicates, they nevertheless must await future success before being considered a great hockey team.

Jarvis played for four Stanley Cup champions in Montreal from 1976 to 1979, and from 1976 to 1978 the Canadiens averaged 59 victories and 129 points. Few would dare compare even Edmonton to those powerhouses.

"We've kind of got a situation where we realize that to win we have to have the whole team going," Jarvis said. "All the lines and all the defensemen have to be playing. A couple of guys can't carry us. Everybody has chipped in on different nights to help us come out with victories.

"Montreal was a team with both great offense and great defense. On that team, whether because of the competition at the time or whatever, it seemed like 12 guys could carry the 20.

"You can't do that now. Every team has to have everybody going. I don't know whether we were that much better or what. And I ought to add -- there weren't that many nights when everybody wasn't going."

The Capitals have enjoyed a similar situation this season. There have been few occasions when more than a player or two have been out for a skate. There also have been only a handful of injuries. Although the Capitals have more depth this season than last, it is questionable whether they can handle much adversity.

Murray, for one, hopes that is one question that remains unanswered.