The Washington Capitals are reluctant to discuss playoffs past while they're working on playoffs present.

Here they are with a 2-0 edge in a best-of-five series with the Islanders, with Game 3 tonight at Nassau Coliseum, and the first thing Coach Bryan Murray will tell you is, "History is something you learn from."

Murray wasn't just referring to the fact that the Islanders rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Capitals in last season's best-of-five series. He was also talking about how the Islanders' reversal was accomplished.

Crystalizing the thought, Warren Strelow, the Capitals' goaltending coach, said of the 1985 series with the Islanders: "We'd had a tendency at times to give up the big goal and, at times, not come up with the big save when we really needed it."

Which brings us to Pete Peeters. He's the Capitals' goalie who has repelled 59 of the Islanders' 62 shots thus far. "Really alive," is how defenseman Rod Langway described Peeters' effort so far. "We're letting him see the first shot, he's making the big save and we're playing the rebound."

It also brings us to Al Jensen, the Capitals' other goalie. Jensen merely posted a 28-9-3 record and 3.18 goals-against average this season, second best in the league to Philadelphia's Bob Froese. He has yet to play in this series.

Late Thursday night, Peeters was surrounded by reporters and rebuffed questions as he would slap shots. He was prodded about his role with the Capitals, about his past postseason performances and about when he first learned he would start against the Islanders in this series.

Peeters said, "I don't know." Then he said, "I never thought about it" several times. Again, he said, "I don't know." Finally, he told one interviewer, "What I'm trying to say is, I don't want to answer your questions, okay?"

It is the Capitals' unspoken locker-room truth that when the team traded goalie Pat Riggin to Boston in exchange for Peeters Nov. 14, they did so because they wanted playoff experience in goal come April.

Peeters' resume includes numerous games of ultra-importance. He had played in 41 NHL playoff games (record: 20-20 with one no-decision), including a Stanley Cup final series, and he had beaten the Soviets, 3-2 in overtime, in a 1984 Canada Cup tournament game.

In the previous few years, Riggin and Jensen had led the Capitals to new heights. But the higher-ups wanted to go higher.

Earlier in the series, Capitals General Manager David Poile had said, "History shows that you have to have great goaltending to win the Stanley Cup. We've always used two goalies in the playoffs, and we probably will this year. But you want to have one guy who is clearly your No. 1 goalie, the guy you look to."

It now seems clear that even if Jensen had not suffered back spasms last week, allowing Peeters to play the final four games of the regular season, when first place was still at stake, Peeters was going to be the goalie come playoff time.

Jensen's performance against the Islanders in the playoffs last year seemed to swing on a pendulum. He stopped 36 shots over 81 minutes to lead the Capitals to a 2-1 double-overtime victory in Game 2, his first start in the series. Jensen was in goal again when the Capitals lost the third game, 2-1.

Finally, Jensen struck bottom in a 6-4 loss in Game 4, which allowed the Islanders to even the series. Somebody made a clear statement to Jensen when Riggin was chosen to start Game 5, which the Capitals lost, 2-1. End of series.

As Game 2 ended Thursday night, Jensen was the last member of the team to reach Peeters for a congratulary backslap in front of the net. Jensen left the locker room quickly, long before the media arrived.

"You'd love to see Al get the chance to play, but he understands the situation, I'm sure," defenseman Larry Murphy said. "I think management has taken the philosophy now that they want to go with one goaltender so long as he is hot."

Peeters has had a career with streaks of brilliance mixed with bits of unpredictability. One common thread has been that, in his first year with a new team, he usually has great success.

In 1979-80, Peeters recorded a rookie-record 27-game unbeaten streak with the Philadelphia Flyers. He played 40 games in all that year, yielding fewer than three goals per game, and participated in the Cup finals. Within two years, however, Peeters' goals-against average had crept up by more than one full goal, to 3.71.

After his third year with Philadelphia, he was traded to Boston for defenseman Brad McCrimmon. In his first year there, Peeters' goals-against average was a league-best 2.36, a stunning figure in the era of Gretzky. He was voted to the NHL's first all-star team and was awarded the Vezina Trophy, given to the goalie(s) playing a minimum of 25 games with the team that has allowed the fewest goals in a season.

Periods of unpredictability followed, however. In the following season, Peeters' shutouts dropped from eight to zero and he lost all three playoff games in which he played. He played 51 games last season (3.47 goals-against average) and caught everybody's attention when he declared himself unavailable to play the fifth and deciding playoff game against Montreal, which the Bruins lost, because he was suffering from what a team official termed a sinus infection.

Then came the trade to the Capitals.

"He's such a calm and cool goalie," said defenseman Scott Stevens. "Nothing seems to bother him. That's what you need in this kind of hockey. He's a very good pressure goalie."

Islanders Coach Al Arbour said, "We've got to get something by him to shake him up a little and I'm confident that we will."