Big games are for big players.

"Our big players came through for us," said Coach Mike Keenan, whose Philadelphia Flyers beat the Washington Capitals, 5-3, tonight in front of 17,211 at the Spectrum to win the Patrick Division championship. "Dave Poulin showed great leadership, Propp and Kerr scored the goals they're expected to score, four defensemen worked most of the game and Bob Froese played like a championship goaltender."

Simple as that.

Brian Propp, Tim Kerr and Poulin are first, third and fifth, respectively, on the team in scoring and they form one of the most potent lines this side of the province of Alberta. Two of the three were involved in all five Flyers goals: Propp had three goals with two assists, and Kerr the other two goals.

Poulin is the soft-spoken, articulate captain of this team.

"I'd like to think we can control a game," said Poulin, who set up Propp for a shorthanded goal two minutes into the second period that gave Philadelphia the lead -- at 3-2 -- which it never relinquished. "It's a good feeling to come up big in big games, and I think we should. We've been together for a couple years and we should be able to take control of games."

The win gives the Flyers the division title for the second season in a row, allows them to play the fourth-place New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs and ensures a home-ice advantage except in the Stanley Cup finals.

The Capitals, who had to win the game to take the division title, will face the third-place New York Islanders in the first round. The Islanders, who have eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, will visit Capital Centre Wednesday and Thursday night before the best-of-five series shifts to the Nassau Coliseum Saturday.

Keenan was glad it was over.

"It's a credit to both clubs that they took it to 80 games," Keenan said. Then of what the division title means, he added, "It was another level in our development. We felt it important in the maturation of our team. And it's very critical to have the home-ice advantage in the playoffs."

The fans in the Spectrum were nearly silent after the Capitals took a 2-0 lead midway through the first period on goals by Jorgen Pettersson and Craig Laughlin.

"We were tight at the beginning," Kerr said. "The crowd was really up and we were a little too excited. We were worrying about what they were doing instead of worrying about what we ought to be doing. But we got our feet back on the ground just fine at the end of the first period and then went to work."

Kerr, in the NHL record book for the most power-play goals in a season, got his 34th at the 16:39 mark of the first period. With Scott Stevens off for holding Murray Craven, Kerr did his thing, which is called Camping on the Corner. Brad McCrimmon's shot from the right point was deflected right to Kerr, who perched just outside the Capitals crease to the right of goalie Pete Peeters, and the 6-foot-3, 225-pound center easily swept it past his former teammate.

The second period started badly for the Capitals. Very badly.

Washington's Kevin Hatcher was draped all over Brian Propp in the slot. But the Flyers' leading scorer freed himself enough to spin and knock home a pass by Peter Zezel from behind the Capitals net to tie the game at 2.

The Flyers' Ron Sutter went off for high-sticking 33 seconds after Propp's goal. It was an opportunity for the Capitals to strike right back, but 34 seconds later, it became an opportunity wasted.

Stevens failed to control the puck near the red line, and it bounded past him.

"At that point, I'm gone," Poulin said. Poulin went in on a breakaway and waited until Peeters went down to make a perfect drop pass to the trailing Propp who scored easily. It was only the sixth shorthanded goal scored against the Capitals all season.

"When you get a couple goals at the beginning of a period like that," Propp said, "it really hurts a team."