This has been a frustrating season for Bob Carpenter, the Washington Capitals' 22-year-old center, but things are slowly improving.

The goals and play-making opportunities have been coming a bit more frequently, and the variety of injuries and ailments he suffered earlier are not a problem at the moment. He's far more concerned about the team finishing strong in its final 16 games and doing well in the playoffs.

"As long as the team is playing well, as it has been, that's the main thing," Carpenter said. "We're just trying to concentrate on the last part of the season and get ready for the playoffs right now. That's the key to winning in the playoffs -- winning and playing well in the last 20 games.

"Yeah, I'm playing a lot better. I feel pretty good out there, and I'm starting to do some things with the puck."

Carpenter was the team's leading goal-scorer in 1984-85 with 53. When his 42 assists were included, he was second on the team to Mike Gartner in points. At this stage last season, Carpenter had 45 goals and 34 assists. This year, the numbers are 21 and 23.

"It's just not really that good a season," Carpenter said. "When things are going your way, you get the bounces, and when they're not, you don't."

In his first 30 games this season, Carpenter had seven goals and 12 assists. In his last 24 games, he has had 11 goals and nine assists. It's hardly a complete reversal, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

"I think he's improved a great deal lately," Coach Bryan Murray said. "He's able to do more, his conditioning is at a higher level and he's motivated right now. Things are happening. He's making plays, getting the puck and getting the occasional goal. It makes us feel that Bob Carpenter is coming back to be the type of player he's capable of being.

"It's a long process. He started to come, then he'd have a down game. He didn't have the consistency. Now, that appears to be coming back. He's getting more consistent every night and playing harder every night.

"In the beginning, it upset us that he couldn't play the way he can. We tried to get him to work harder in practice, but now it's much easier. He's doing it on his own, staying later and playing better. Now, it's just a matter of giving him a chance to play and being positive about the results."

Other players have taken up the slack, which has lessened the pressure on Carpenter.

"It's helped him come back," Murray said. "If a player has a down year on a lesser team, they might have a tough time of ever getting going in that year. With a number of guys going well, it's kept the pressure off someone who's struggling, Bobby or whomever. It's pulling him along and encouraged him to get his game going."

The individual improvement and the team's recent success have relieved a bit of the frustration.

"I'd like to be scoring every night, but you've got to realize you're not going to do that," Carpenter said. "If we're going a few games when the team is not winning, I feel like it's my responsibility to score some goals. But when the team is winning . . . you can't ask for any more than that."

And the team is winning. The Capitals are just three points back of the Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division. Washington is off until Saturday, when it faces the New York Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y.

The Islanders are a potential playoff opponent. And the playoffs may be a place for a little redemption.

"Right now, I just want to work as hard as I can," Carpenter said. "In the playoffs, you can, more or less, redeem yourself, especially for the team . . . get a couple goals. Get the team going and you never know how far you can go."

Goalie Al Jensen left yesterday's practice shortly after it began. "He hurt his knee at the start while warming up. We sent him off, but it's just a precaution," Murray said. Later in the day, Murray said Dr. Stephen Haas had examined Jensen and said he would be able to practice today . . . Craig Laughlin, who has been bothered by a sore left ankle, did not work out yesterday. Flyers 7, Maple Leafs 4

Mark Howe scored two goals and assisted on four and Ron Sutter got the game-winner at 4:13 of the third period as Philadelphia, playing at home, ended a four-game losing streak by defeating Toronto.

The victory increased the Flyers' Patrick Division lead to three points over idle Washington, which has played two fewer games.

Philadelphia sent a season-high 53 shots at Toronto goalie Don Edwards and took a 5-4 lead after Sutter took a pass from his brother Rick at the left side of the goal. Blues 7, Canadiens 4

In Montreal, Kevin LaVallee and Bernie Federko scored the game-winning and insurance goals 2:40 apart in St. Louis' four-goal second period.

LaVallee put a 50-foot power-play shot past goalie Steve Penney at 16:44 to break a 4-4 tie. Federko scored at 19:44 on a shot from inside the blueline that went under Penney's pads.

The second period began tied at 2 when the Canadiens' Mario Tremblay shoved a goal-mouth pass behind St. Louis goalie Rick Wamsley at 3:02. Devils 7, Red Wings 2

Kirk Muller scored two goals and set up two others and John MacLean and Doug Sulliman each had a goal and two assists to lead host New Jersey over Detroit.

MacLean set up Greg Adams with the first goal of the game at 3:51, giving Adams 31 goals for the season. Nordiques 5, Bruins 4

In Boston, Mike Eagles scored at 3:28 of overtime to give Quebec the victory and tighten the race in the Adams Division.

The result moved the Nordiques within two points of division-leading Montreal and gave them a five-point lead over third-place Boston. Rangers 5, Flames 2

Pierre Larouche and George McPhee each scored two goals to rally New York to its first victory in Calgary in three years. The result ended a three-game losing streak for the Rangers and a five-game winning streak for the Flames.

The Rangers outshot the Flames, 15-10, in the opening period but trailed, 1-0. Dan Quinn broke down the wing, skated around Rangers defenseman Barry Beck and slipped a shot past goalie Glen Hanlon. Canucks 5, Kings 5

Brent Peterson scored the tying goal with 14 seconds remaining in regulation and Vancouver ended up with a tie against Los Angeles.