As Rick Tocchet, ruffian second class, skated past the Washington bench at Capital Centre yesterday, Pete Peeters saw his chance to wish his favorite Philadelphia Flyer a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

Why, Peeters wished to know, was Tocchet carrying his hockey stick so high? Some mishap might occur. A Capital could have his face slashed. Tocchet, not wishing to be uncivil, skated directly to the Capitals bench, climbed halfway over the boards and -- his face a foot from Peeters' nose -- asked a question that had nagged at him all day. If Peeters was such a brave and wonderful goaltender, why had he chosen to sit out the final period of this vital late-season game?

According to Tocchet's theory, a man of intestinal fortitude would not absent himself from such a contest simply because he had a "groin pull."

"So," explained Peeters, "that's when I tried to punch him in the mouth."

The camaraderie and spirit of fair play that always animate the encounters between the professional hockey squads of Philadelphia and Washington were on display again yesterday.

The Flyers took their 6-5 defeat with consummate good grace, though it cut their Patrick Division lead to one point. As Brian Propp put it, "After tonight, we know we can beat this team." Clear as day.

The Capitals, who have a game in hand and close the season two weeks hence in Philadelphia, never would stoop so low as to gloat in victory, kick a fallen foe or play mind games just to gain a psychological advantage.

As Washington Coach Bryan Murray said of shellshocked Flyers goalie Bob Froese, who was yanked in the second period: "Nobody asked me this question, but now that we've put him out of the net, it should be a tremendous psychological lift for our players. We've watched him carefully recently and learned some things. He was really struggling. The reason he has a league-leading 2.5 goals against average is that nobody ever gets any shots on him. He doesn't have to do much work."

Far be it from the classy Capitals to mock Froese in his plight or imply that his mastery of them earlier this season -- Washington has managed one goal off him in two games in Philadelphia -- might be a thing of the past.

Shoot a lot and shoot high was Bob Carpenter's summation of the Capitals' battle plan. Bengt Gustafsson, a star of the game on his birthday, said, "Just keep bombing him. Make him scramble."

Naturally, the Capitals wouldn't try to get the Flyers fussing among themselves just because Philadelphia has a 9-3-1 head-to-head edge in two seasons.

It was probably just the disinterested pursuit of truth that prompted Capitals General Manager David Poile to say, "Yanking Froese doesn't show much confidence in the top goaltender in the league, does it?"

Oh, yes. Peeters, the bench-ridden pugilist, had a thought on the touchy subject, too. "What in the world was Flyers coach Mike Keenan thinking?"

Welcome to the NHL's version of "Who's Zoomin' Who?" This wasn't the perfect day to bring small children to the rink. You could tell that right from the opening faceoff.

That's when the Flyers put both of their chief law enforcement officers, Dave Brown and Dave Richter, in the starting lineup. The Capitals countered with the equally bizarre starting tandem of Dwight Schofield and John Barrett. Just the home team's way of saying, "We'll see your Hulk Hogan and raise you an Andre the Giant."

Total penalty minutes on the ice to start the game: 1,102. It looked like a muggers convention. Instead of a faceoff, why not a police lineup?

If the Capitals proved to be masters of postgame cheap talk, the Flyers established their own specialty early: the cheap shot during the game.

Seconds after the Capitals tied the game 3-3, Washington's Bob Gould was rolling on the ice after being smacked in the temple by a stick. Moments after the next Capitals goal, Tocchet was on the ice trying to get star Rod Langway in a fight, while a few feet away, Lindsay Carson, another notorious character, was starting a brawl with Carpenter.

This proved unwise, since Carpenter landed four right-hand haymakers to Carson's furrowed brow. For this, both got a two-minute minor penalty -- hardly the strategic outcome sought by the Flyers, who are masters of the tactical use of intimidation. When the Flyers and Capitals meet, the refs figure, "No autopsy, no major."

"When it comes right down to it, you have to play the game right," said Murray, who, given his druthers, would ignore the goon tactics that are back in NHL vogue. "When the games become important enough, nobody's going to be afraid of anyone, not even the littlest guy or the biggest guy . . .

"This was playoff hockey. Emotional, hard-working," Murray added. "It's been said we can't win the big game. I thought we did that today ."

For the Capitals, the next two weeks will be a chance to chisel out their first piece of NHL glory. "We want a division championship banner for the Centre rafters ," said Langway. "You don't know how many years you have left. No matter what you do in the playoffs, you've won something."

As for the Flyers, who still have a lead and that last game at home, the Capitals still look vincible. "We just have to do the little things right the next five games, then win the last game," said Propp.

A birthday cake sat above Gustafsson's locker as the Capitals celebrated their victory, yet it remained uncut. Gustafsson allowed as how he might let somebody else cut it for him. You never know.

"Might be from a Flyer," he said.