The New York Rangers came to town yesterday, primed for New Year's Eve at the Greenbelt Hilton and New Year's Day at Capital Centre, where they provide the holiday opposition for the Washington Capitals.

There are several reasons Rangers Coach Ted Sator might have felt compelled to say that "we can anticipate a war."

He might have heard those radio commercials asking fans to come out and watch the Capitals "stick it to the Rangers." Or he might have seen an advance copy of the team photo of the Capitals, dressed in camouflage garb and brandishing guns, that will be distributed Saturday.

Perhaps he had a spy at the Capitals' practice yesterday, which concluded with a sparring session, boxing gloves replacing hockey gloves, between Washington defensemen Dwight Schofield and Kevin Hatcher.

Or possibly Sator was apprised of remarks by Washington Coach Bryan Murray a couple of weeks ago, when Murray said he wanted visiting teams, particularly Patrick Division opponents, to pay more of a price when they come to Capital Centre.

Asked whether Sator was correct in forecasting a "war" this afternoon, however, Murray replied, "I don't think I meant that at all. Ted Sator may have been influenced by his years with the Flyers. I want 60 minutes of intense hockey from our players, and I want them taking the body more than in the past, but I'm not talking about beating on the other team physically -- high sticking, spearing, that kind of thing."

Murray has been upset by the way the Capitals have allowed leads to slip away recently. They have won only two of their last five games, after leading in each of them.

Sunday they had a 3-0 advantage after 21 minutes and lost to the Rangers, 6-5, in New York. Saturday they led the Black Hawks here, 2-0 and 4-2, and wound up 7-4 losers. Against Quebec here Thursday, they built a 4-1 lead and barely hung on, 4-3. At Quebec Dec. 22, they jumped in front, 2-0, then had to rally with three third-period goals to win, 7-5. In Winnipeg Dec. 20, they nursed a 3-2 lead until the last eight minutes, then were blown away, 7-4.

"We get a team at a disadvantage on the scoreboard and we never take advantage of it and put the game away," Murray said. "We have to keep up our intense play, not begin to float because we're ahead."

Over the last seven games, the Capitals have yielded an average of 35 shots. During the first 28 games, when they were compiling an 18-7-3 record, they gave up an average of 26 shots. Murray's goal always has been to limit the opposition to fewer than 30.

"Our objective is not only to win but to get back to our previous level of defensive play," Murray said. "We want to cut down the quality shots against, with 30 being the objective. What I'm trying to do is upgrade the offense in the regular season, but still keep the opponent's shots below 30.

"I want to see forechecking like we've had in the past. Playing teams like the Rangers, Islanders and Flyers, we have to be physically more involved, make more contact in the offensive zone and force more turnovers."

The Capitals did a good job of checking in the first period Sunday, as they limited the Rangers to four shots. But it was the first such demonstration in several games and it was not sustained.

One of the Capitals' biggest problems recently has been penalty killing. Over the last seven games, they have been exploited for 13 power-play goals, three times giving up three in a game.

Over the first 28 games, they led the NHL in penalty killing, yielding 18 power-play goals, never three in a game and two on only one occasion.

"It's a concern, but you have to remember that we've adopted a different philosophy in that area," Murray said. "We're attacking more, we're scoring some short-handed goals and over the year that will cost you.

"We do have to play better in our own end. We're not getting the puck out of our end very well."

Murray will continue his goaltending rotation today, which means Al Jensen will face the Rangers for the first time this season. Jensen's 11-game unbeaten streak was stopped by Chicago and Murray attributed his below-average effort to a lack of work the previous week, when the Christmas holiday disrupted the usual routine.

Schofield, who has been in uniform only once since Dec. 7, will be back today, and wearing hockey gloves. His session with Hatcher yesterday was a no-decision, unlike a similar bout in Edmonton, when he was decked by Hatcher's left hook and was forced to endure teammates' gibes for some time.