Every year at this time, some muttering is heard, usually from Hartford, that the National Hockey League's divisional alignment and playoff qualifications are unfair.

The complaints have been muted this year, no doubt in part because so much attention is focused on the upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations with the players.

Another reason for the relative quiet, however, is more germane. The present setup is working, so well that it has become a box-office bonanza.

The Patrick Division is enjoying the best of both worlds, a battle for first place and an equally tense struggle for fourth. After last night's games, only one point separated first-place Philadelphia and challenging Washington, while the fourth-place New York Rangers held the final playoff spot by one point over Pittsburgh.

The upcoming schedule promises a contest to the wire, too. On windup day, April 6, the Capitals are in Philadelphia and the Penguins visit the Rangers.

If the other divisions cannot quite measure up to that competitive dream, excellent races continue in all three.

The Adams comes closest to the Patrick, with Quebec on top by three points over Montreal and Buffalo clinging to fourth by a mere two points over Hartford.

If Detroit's despair long ago finalized the four Norris playoff teams, the order of finish remains in considerable doubt. Chicago holds the lead by three points over Minnesota, with St. Louis one point farther back. The Blackhawks and Blues meet twice on the final weekend of the season.

Edmonton probably ought to be in another league. The rest of the Smythe Division has made the best -- or worst -- of the situation, however, with a rousing battle for the last two playoff berths. Winnipeg has 52 points, Los Angeles 51 and Vancouver 48.

The stir created by the various races was illustrated at the box office on Monday, far from the best night of the week to lure hockey fans. There were 15,259 at Pittsburgh for the game with Washington, 14,729 at Minnesota for the Blues' visit and an overflow 18,092 at Montreal for the showdown with Quebec.

The NHL governors are not likely to misinterpret those figures. There will be no change of divisional pairings in the foreseeable future.

March has been a good month for visiting teams trying to terminate longstanding jinxes.

Hartford won in Montreal for the first time in 26 visits, counting playoff competition. That put the Whalers a step up on the Capitals, who have won only once in 27 tries at the Forum. Buffalo prevailed in Quebec for the first time in 17 trips.

Thursday in Philadelphia, the Penguins get another chance to end the longest history of failure in the NHL. They have not won a game in 31 Spectrum contests since Jan. 20, 1974.

John Ferguson, the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, has been chastised for a number of acts this season, in particular the trade of defenseman Dave Babych and the firing of Coach Barry Long.

One item that must cause Ferguson to grit his teeth in frustration is his failure to sign center Mike Ridley, a native of Winnipeg who lives in Winnipeg and was the Canadian university player of the year with the University of Manitoba, which is located in Winnipeg.

Ridley was signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers and, barring a late upheaval, he is about to become the first undrafted college player ever to lead an NHL team in scoring during his rookie year.

Through last night's game against the Islanders, Ridley has 21 goals and 38 assists.

If those were the sparsest numbers of any club leader, they nevertheless would have been most welcome -- as well as a close third -- in Winnipeg.