With two games left in an 80-game schedule, the Washington Capitals remain in position to finish atop the Patrick Division for the first time.

The major stumbling block is Philadelphia, which technically shares the lead at 106 points but has an extra victory as well as home ice for Sunday's showdown.

Before the teams go head to head to determine which is second-best in the National Hockey League, each has an important engagement tonight against an opponent whose hopes rise no higher than a fourth-place Patrick Division finish.

The Capitals are at home against the New York Rangers, with whom they have split six previous games. The Flyers travel to Pittsburgh, where they will face a fading team (two victories in 14 games) they have whipped five times, with the sixth tied.

If Philadelphia wins, Washington must get at least a tie to stay alive. The Flyers, on the other hand, could lose tonight and still pull it out Sunday, because of that extra victory.

The Capitals say they will not be thinking of the Flyers at all until tonight's business with the Rangers is concluded.

"The Ranger game is our biggest game so far," said center Alan Haworth, who has contributed at least one point in seven straight games. "If we win that, then the Flyer game is the biggest. But we know if we lose to the Rangers, there will be no Flyers."

"Right now we're prepared to play against both teams, and that makes it easier," said Dave Christian, whose seven goals in the last nine games have lifted him to 40 for the season. "We don't have to change anything. The playoffs are so close -- two games and then the playoffs Wednesday -- that the big thing is just to be sure we execute the things we do best."

"We have to concentrate on the Rangers," said Gaetan Duchesne, who has a goal and six assists in his last six games. "We can't think about the Flyers. Let them announce the Flyers' score tomorrow. We'll only worry about our score. We have the experience to handle it now."

Coach Bryan Murray restricted himself to one minor bit of tinkering during yesterday's practice at Fort Dupont. He placed Steve Leach at right wing on a line with Duchesne and Bob Gould, while relegating Jorgen Pettersson to fourth-line duty.

"Steve Leach played hard last night in a 4-2 triumph over Hartford and he's both willing and a good skater," Murray said. "He deserves a little bit of an upgrade.

"Jorgen Pettersson will play a fair amount against the Rangers, because he's played well against them before. Then we'll evaluate the situation. He's got to move the puck more and do more things out there."

Promoting Leach and shifting Gould to center leaves the fourth line without a natural right wing, regardless of who dresses among Pettersson, Dwight Schofield, Mark Taylor, Grant Martin and Yvon Corriveau.

"Basically, we'll be going with three lines and three other people with a chance to play in certain situations," Murray said.

"If there's a need to use the three of them as a unit, Jorgen can always take a turn on the right side."

In goal, Murray elected to go with the hot hand rather than past performance. Pete Peeters will face the Rangers, after superb efforts against Pittsburgh and Hartford, rather than Al Jensen, who has yielded only two goals in three victories over New York.

Although the Capitals were outplayed during the first two periods by both the Penguins and Whalers, Murray is confident the team will raise the level of its play on this last, crucial weekend.

"We're in the situation you want to be in from the first day, playing for first place and in position to win it yourself, without any help," he said. "There's no question, we're going to have to play three periods like the third period of the last two games.

"There's a lot on the line, and our guys seem to respond to that. They play their best hockey with the game on the line. We've had big games all week and two of the four are gone, and we won them.

"I know we didn't look all that great, but I think the opposition had something to do with that. Hartford is a quality team and played very well. And I gave our guys enough of a shot after the second period last night that they realize they can't play like that again.

"What encouraged me the most about the game was that our defensive corps was solid throughout. That's as well as they've played in a while."

Tickets remain for both the Rangers game and for the first two playoff games on Wednesday and Thursday.