After finishing the first quarter in the black for the first time in the 12-year history of the franchise, the Washington Capitals are looking toward the usual second-quarter surplus to help them make a run at the streaking Philadelphia Flyers.

Despite their 11-6-3 start, which far outstripped the previous best of 6-6-8 in 1980-81, the Capitals are trailing Philadelphia by seven points.

There is an opportunity to chop into that differential before their Friday the 13th departure for the West Coast, because starting with tonight's visit by the Quebec Nordiques, the Capitals play six of the next seven games at Capital Centre.

"This is certainly the time that allows us the best chance to close on them," said Coach Bryan Murray. "But the Flyers are playing so well, it's hard to gain much ground. If we even get within five points, I'd be happy.

"We'll try to rope them in by early February. If we can play consistent hockey and keep them in sight until we play them again (Jan. 9), we have six games with them that could wind up deciding first place."

There are many positive aspects to the Capitals' solid start, which has seen them lose only three of 17 games after they dropped the first three.

The team is winning despite a series of mishaps that sidelined Rod Langway for eight games and Scott Stevens for six, while Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter were below par with injuries for much of the first month.

Stevens remains an absentee tonight, after missing yesterday's practice for yet another examination of his bruised right knee. Alan Haworth's status, after being forced out Wednesday by a groin pull, will be determined after the warmup tonight.

"It's certainly a positive thing that we've been winning despite some key injuries," Murray said. "A number of people have gotten increased ice time and have come through for us.

"Kevin Hatcher has been excellent the last three games. We were hoping he'd be playing like that by Christmas, and already he looks like the rookie of the year.

"Peter Andersson has shown a lot of good things, and Dwight Schofield, who was obtained to fill a role for us, has done considerably more than we had expected. In the long run, their playing so much early has got to help us."

The Capitals' special teams have been superb, with the power play ranked third in the NHL at 28.1 percent and the penalty killing tied for second with Quebec at 86.5.

"We're playing pretty well and doing some things offensively we hadn't tried before," Murray said. "The special teams are part of that. Both our power play and penalty killing have been excellent in recent games.

"We're playing more intelligently on the power play. If the shot's there, we're taking it, where before we tried to set up a perfect play too much of the time. Gus (Bengt Gustafsson) and Davy Christian have moved the puck very well and Craig Laughlin has done a good job in front of the net as well as retrieving the puck and getting a second shot.

"I'm a little concerned about play in our own end, but that has been coming along better. We're getting real outstanding goaltending, something we haven't had this early in the past. Al Jensen is back where he was when he was picked for the All-Star team (two years ago)."

In 1982-83, when they first earned a playoff berth, the Capitals were 7-9-4 at the quarter pole, then took off with a 14-game unbeaten streak in late November and December.

In 1983-84, when they climbed to second in the Patrick Division with 101 points, the Capitals lost their first seven games and still were shy of .500 in January. Then another 14-game undefeated streak propelled them into the Patrick lead for a while.

Last season, again totaling 101 points for second place, Washington struggled to a 6-8-5 start before it went on a 25-4-2 tear over two months beginning Nov. 25.

After missing 10 games with postviral encephalitis that affected his vision, Coach Michel Bergeron rejoined the Nordiques last night in Buffalo. It wasn't easy. He had to pick up special glasses from his ophthalmologist, was grounded by snow in Toronto and had to go the rest of the way by taxi.