Much has transpired since the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers last met at the Spectrum almost three months ago, although no event compares to the tragic automobile accident on Nov. 10 that resulted in the death of Philadelphia goalie Pelle Lindbergh.

The Flyers have maintained their composure, and they enter tonight's game in Philadelphia still clinging to the Patrick Division lead, four points in front of Washington.

History in this matchup of the NHL's top two defensive teams would appear to favor the Flyers. They won the only meeting this season, 4-2, after posting a 5-1-1 mark against the Capitals a year ago.

Momentum is on Washington's side. The Capitals, who trailed by 10 points on New Year's Eve, take a four-game winning streak to Philadelphia, along with the knowledge that, with a game in hand, a victory would create a virtual deadlock for first place.

Despite such lofty implications and the added incentive that these two teams are the only realistic challengers to Edmonton for the overall regular-season title and the $200,000 that goes with it, the Capitals are treating the game more as a prelude to future competition than as a critical confrontation.

During yesterday's practice at Mount Vernon, the Capitals placed special emphasis on breakout variations. Last season, much of the Flyers' success came from adept forechecking that kept Washington in its own end.

"The important thing tomorrow is that we learn something from the game about our team and about the Philadelphia Flyers," said Coach Bryan Murray. "We'd love to win in their building, but this is just a game at the 40-game mark of the regular season.

"I want the team to play well and do the things we're capable of doing. We'll try a couple of things against them, see their reaction and our ability to execute against them. Then the coaching staff should learn what we can do and what they do to offset us.

"We have six more games against them and they're not the team we figure to meet in the first round of the playoffs, so there will be a lot of hockey before we get into the games that really mean something."

Still, the Capitals feel the need to raise their level of play beyond that of recent weeks, when they have experienced problems coming out of their end of the ice against lesser opponents.

"We have to move the puck easily and get out of our end cleanly," said captain Rod Langway. "Their asset is forechecking and capitalizing on turnovers. If we give them a second chance in our end, they'll bury us.

"Every time we play Philly and the Islanders, it's an important game emotionally and standing-wise. We have a lot more games to come, but the season is winding down and the playoffs are around the corner. We'd better get ourselves ready for the big games."

The Flyers, idle since losing, 2-1, in St. Louis Saturday, are in top condition.

Washington, however, probably will be forced to play without center Alan Haworth, whose 19-goal, 41-point season has been a key factor in the Capitals' improvement. Haworth skated yesterday, but he is still shaky from the effects of the concussion he suffered Saturday, when he was elbowed in the face by New Jersey defenseman Bob Lorimer. Left wing Jorgen Pettersson was excused from practice because he was not feeling well, but he vowed to be in uniform tonight.

"It wasn't bad today, but we'll have to wait and see tomorrow," Haworth said. "A big factor is that I haven't eaten much. I'm just reaching the stage where my stomach can handle food. It's a big game tomorrow, so we'll see."

If Haworth cannot play, and Murray called him "pretty doubtful," Bob Gould, the hero of Tuesday's 4-3 victory over Detroit, will center Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin. Peter Andersson once again would be asked to center the fourth line of Gaetan Duchesne and Ed Kastelic and also would see some time on defense.

"Peter is versatile enough to play just about anywhere," Murray said. "It's too bad for him, because he wants to play defense, but we need him to fill that role."

Since Andersson has played every position except goalie, he was asked if that came next and replied, "I need a big raise on my contract if he wants to put me there."

Goaltending, of course, is one area in which the Capitals are solid. Al Jensen, a loser only once in his last 14 decisions, will face the Flyers tonight. His goals-against mark of 2.85 ranks second in the NHL.

The No. 1 man is Lindbergh's successor, Bob Froese. However, there is speculation that his 2.64 mark is more the result of the Flyers' overpowering forechecking than his own skill. Froese was criticized for bad goals in recent losses to Edmonton and St. Louis.