Two weeks ago, the Washington Capitals were hoping they would play the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, rather than the Islanders. The Rangers, meanwhile, preferred to face the Capitals, instead of Philadelphia.

Now, a series later than expected, the two teams will get their wish, opening the best-of-seven Patrick Division final tonight at sold-out Capital Centre.

Both were surprisingly successful in the earlier, unwelcome tests. The Capitals shocked their coach, Bryan Murray, by winning three straight from their longtime nemeses, the Islanders. The sub-.500 Rangers stunned virtually everyone except themselves with a five-game upset of the Flyers, who owned the second-best record in the NHL.

"The Rangers had indicated they wanted to play us and now they're happy," Murray said yesterday. "We wanted the Rangers, not the Islanders, so we're both happy.

"I hope they're very tired after that Flyer series and take a couple of days to recover, but I don't really expect it. Emotion can override fatigue and they ought to be pretty high after winning in Philly."

The Capitals must be considered the favorite, with home-ice advantage and a regular-season output that eclipsed the Rangers by 29 points. But they realize -- or ought to -- that this will not be an easy series. The Rangers have the speed to skate with Washington; the Islanders did not.

"Now the onus is on us for a change," Murray said. "Favorites haven't fared very well and I hope we can change that. We weren't very sharp at the start of practice this week but I think having our injured guys Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter getting healthy will be more of a factor than any loss of sharpness. I think we'll be well-prepared and emotionally up for the series."

Both teams are depending heavily on hot goaltenders. Washington's Pete Peeters allowed the Islanders only four goals in three games. John Vanbiesbrouck frustrated the Flyers by stopping 150 of 163 shots.

Murray chose to continue with Peeters in goal despite some startling statistics. In three games against the Rangers this season, Peeters was 0-2-1 and allowed 15 goals. Al Jensen was 3-0 with two shutouts and a yield of two goals.

"Pete was outstanding against the Islanders and he deserves it," Murray said. "But it's nice to see Al looking so sharp in practice. We know he's there when the occasion demands."

Vanbiesbrouck gave up 20 goals while posting a 3-2-1 record against Washington this season.

"He's good, but we've got a hot goaltender, too," said Washington captain Rod Langway. "If we go in the net like we did against the Islanders, we'll be in good shape. Using a lot of people is a big plus for us."

New York Coach Ted Sator noted the Capitals' depth in comparing them to the Flyers, who were obviously weary during Tuesday's climactic 5-2 loss, after overworking certain players while ignoring others.

"The Caps are that much deeper than the Flyers," Sator said. "They use all their personnel. They should be ready for us and hopefully we're going to get down to business before we're slapped in the face with the cold fish of reality."

Carpenter and Gartner, who played on the same line against the Islanders as they tested their injured knees, are close to 100 percent and will skate on separate units tonight. Carpenter will center Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin, while Gartner will be teamed with Jorgen Pettersson and Alan Haworth.

The Gaetan Duchesne-Dave Christian-Bob Gould line, which shackled Islanders Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, most likely will turn its attention to the Rangers' high-powered threesome of Kelly Miller, Mike Ridley and Pierre Larouche.

"The Flyers are a great team and it's nice to beat them, but now we have to carry on and there's not much time," Larouche said. "We're going to have to be disciplined and tight. We're not a team that's going to get a lot of goals and we'd better not give them many."

Murray had the same thought about this matchup of the NHL's No. 2 (Washington) and No. 3 defensive teams.

"We have too much respect for the teams in this division to expect an easy time," Murray said. "We know every game will be a one-goal hockey game, two at the most."

Of the Capitals' unaccustomed favorite's role, Langway said, "There's never a favorite when you're talking about teams in our division. We have home ice, that's all. We may have had more points in the regular season, but so did the Flyers."

Both teams are looking forward to a good series devoid of the intimidating tactics that occupied so much time when both faced the Flyers this season.

"The Rangers are a better skating team than the Flyers, but the big difference is that we won't have to worry about a Dave Brown type," said Lou Franceschetti, who has experienced considerable success against the Rangers in the past.

New York will be missing its captain, defenseman Ron Greschner, who suffered a broken wrist Tuesday. He will be replaced by either Tom Laidlaw, who has been out since March 12 with back spasms, or 6-6 rookie Kjell Samuelsson, recalled yesterday from New Haven.

Asked about Greschner, Langway said, "We lost Gus [Bengt Gustafsson], too. I said then everybody would come down with some injuries in the playoffs."