You don't know much about a team until you see how it takes a punch. And, brother, did the Washington Capitals take one in the gut Saturday night.

When you lose to your arch-rivals in your own building on a goal with only two seconds to play, that's the pits.

Just when it looked safe to jump on the Capitals' bandwagon, along came reality in the form of a 5-4 Philadelphia Flyers victory on a last-gasp Brian Propp goal.

Just when it looked as if the Capitals might build a 13-point Patrick Division lead, the Flyers cut that to nine points. And with last night's Philadelphia win over the Rangers, it's seven, with the Flyers still having two games in hand.

Now, we'll see what these hot-stuff Washington hockey pucks are made of. To reach the NHL finals, you better eat up adversity like spinach, then ask for a bowl of nails for dessert.

For the past 10 weeks, hockey has been almost too easy for the Capitals. When you build a 28-5-3 streak, when you're 10-1-1 in your last dozen games, when you've only lost once at home in the past two months, you start believing that nothing can go wrong.

You certainly don't think the Flyers can traipse into Capital Centre and beat you on the hockey equivalent of a Hail Mary football bomb at the gun or a midcourt basket at the buzzer.

Sometimes an empty locker room can be more eloquent than the players who aren't there. The Capitals' dressing quarters were silent and barren for quite a while as they tried to get their chins out of their laps and put their faces back together after four goals by Tim Kerr and their Propp Flop.

"Any questions?" said Capitals Coach Brian Murray, biting off his words.

Ever had a worse defeat?

"Well, I guess the last one against the New York Islanders in the playoffs last year, but you won't see many tougher than that . . .

"We looked a little leg weary from playing the night before and they took advantage of it. It's disappointing, but we'll regroup. We'll be fine. We have a lot of people on this team that rebound well.

"We won't accept this easily, but we will accept it that tonight they beat us. I don't know whether the better team won or not . . . Time will tell."

Curiously, the Flyers seemed to agree with Murray's evaluation. Anyone looking for Philadelphia bravado would be very disappointed. If anything, the Flyers sounded like a team that didn't want to make the Capitals mad and didn't want to raise expectations too much among their own fans.

"This is going to give us a big lift. It's something to build from, because we haven't been playing well lately," said Kerr. "But they're a great team. Playing the night before took a toll on their legs and they weren't as fast as usual.

"The Caps are playing such good hockey, handling the good teams, too. When they beat the Islanders back to back, a lot of people took notice," said Kerr, respectfully. "You have to realize we're still a young team trying to work in our first-year players."

"Sure, we look at the standings," said Propp (whose reaction to his goal was, "God, it went in!"). "But we're at the stage where we're mostly worried about doing the little things right and becoming a better team."

Even Flyers Coach Mike Keenan seemed willing to put the Capitals on a level one notch above his own gang. "We're within striking distance, but Washington has a good hold on it right now. We rose to the occasion in a crisis situation, but we still have to grow and mature as a team. Consistency is what we're after."

Consistency is the very thing the Capitals have in abundance. It's the one quality they bring to the ice that separates them from the pack, just as the Edmonton Oilers take Wayne Gretzky's genius with them everywhere.

By a nice coincidence, the Capital who epitomizes that consistency -- the ability to bring the same intensity and efficiency to the rink every night -- is about to reach a landmark Wednesday.

When the Capitals meet Winnipeg at Capital Centre, forward Doug Jarvis will play in his 777th consecutive game, breaking a tie with Craig Ramsay for second place on the all-time list behind Garry Unger, who played in 914 straight.

In a sense, Jarvis, who played on four Stanley Cup champions with the Montreal Canadiens, is the perfect Capital for this moment. "Jarvis represents consistency to its ultimate definition," said General Manager David Poile, who traded for him. "He's not the best hockey player in any one respect, just like most of the rest of our team. But he gives it his all every night. A coach can count on him and so can his teammates.

"He gets very little recognition. His size (5 feet 9, 165 pounds), speed and goal-scoring ability aren't special. So what makes him so good?

"The answer is that he has all the intangibles: leadership, hard work, good defense, patience. He can and does play in combinations with everybody. He's as dependable as the sun coming up."

This is a juncture when the Capitals will need to call on those intangibles in Jarvis and other workaholics like Rod Langway. Earlier this season, Jarvis was knocked unconscious one night, then came back to play nearly full shifts the next -- keeping his streak alive but also proving to his mates that if he couldn't pull his full weight, he wouldn't tolerate a token appearance for the sake of a record.

"When we look back on it, that may be one of the rallying points of the whole season," said Poile. "When the oldest player on the team (Jarvis will be 30 in March) wants to play that badly, it makes everyone else take stock of themselves."

The Capitals will probably need another rallying point in the wake of Propp's red-light shocker. It's fitting that the team's next game will also be No. 777 for Jarvis.

What makes Jarvis special is that he forgets his talent limitations, forgets his personal defeats and comes back to play his best night after night.

That's exactly the sort of example the Capitals need to follow after the Philadelphia blow to the solar plexus that left them doubled over in pain Saturday night.