The Washington Capitals would prefer to be sitting at Rod Langway's restaurant tonight, watching Hartford and Montreal determine their next opponent in the chase for the Stanley Cup.

Instead, the Capitals will be playing for their postseason lives at sold-out Capital Centre, since they are in a 2-2 standoff with the unyielding New York Rangers in the best-of-seven Patrick Division final.

Along with two one-sided victories over the Rangers, the Capitals have two overtime losses, after building two-goal margins in each game.

Only twice in 80 regular-season games did the Capitals lose after carrying a lead into the third period. They have managed it twice in this series.

"That's what the playoffs are all about," said defenseman Greg Smith. "It would have been nice to sweep them, but it's not that easy in the playoffs."

The inability to polish off an obviously inferior team has bothered Coach Bryan Murray, who said: "When you blow a game like that, it drives you nuts."

After their 3-1 advantage disappeared Wednesday night, the Capitals rebuilt it to 5-3 on a shorthanded goal by Smith. But New York battled back to tie it on Bob Brooke's goal with 2:35 left in regulation time and won it when Brooke scored again at 2:40 of sudden death.

"After losing the first game, we knew we had to win one in their building," Murray said. "When you do that, you get greedy, and there's no question we had a real chance to win both.

"We played very well in the third period, but they scored on their only two opportunities. On the power play, we stood back and let them attack us. Then we made a mistake and let them tie it up.

"I'm disappointed we lost it, because now it's a best-of-three, and a break or two can decide the outcome. When it's four out of seven you can give away -- as we have -- a game and make up for it. But now it shortens up and we have to play very well.

"They have a real chance now. If we had won last night, it would have become that much more difficult for them mentally, knowing they had to win two here. But we've given them a second chance."

The most incredible statistic of this series is time in the lead. During the four games, Washington has been ahead for 183 minutes 33 seconds, the Rangers for 28 seconds.

Although those figures document the Capitals' domination, they also have a negative impact, much in the manner of a team that comes close to scoring a number of times, then is deflated by giving up a goal.

"We were ahead the two games we lost, and we probably should have won them," said winger Gaetan Duchesne. "But we didn't, so it's 2-2 and now we have to respond."

"We should have had it won twice," said winger Craig Laughlin. "But we played into their hands, made some mistakes defensively and let them back into it."

The Rangers are hoping that they have figured out goaltender Pete Peeters, who made so many big saves in the first three games.

"I thought all along it was a matter of time until we got to him," said Coach Ted Sator. "Even in the lopsided games, we had our chances."

"We scored on three low shots," said defenseman Willie Huber, whose power-play goal closed the gap to 5-4. "That's the book on him. He's so tall he can't always move those legs in time."

Murray declined to blame Peeters for any of the New York goals.

"They were all bang-bang shots or deflections," Murray said. "Goaltending wasn't our problem. When we got ahead, we were expecting things to happen offensively that were not necessary at that time.

"We learned a lesson in the first game and responded. But we didn't learn it well enough. We were trying to do too much with the puck last night instead of making the safe plays.

"We're at least deserving of being ahead 3-1, and maybe we should have swept them, but in this business you learn that what should be isn't necessarily what happens."

Asked whether he would have liked to give Peeters a rest, Murray said, "Yes, I would, and Al Jensen is playing well in practice. But it's so tough right now."

Peeters and a number of other regulars were told not to practice yesterday. Jensen received considerable work and scared a few people when a rising shot by Yvon Corriveau caught him squarely on the mask. He stayed on the ice and laughed about it later.

Forwards Jorgen Pettersson and Steve Leach will be back in the Washington lineup tonight. Pettersson was a scratch Wednesday night, and Leach missed the last two games because of flu.

New York defenseman Tom Laidlaw is questionable for tonight's game because of back spasms.

If Laidlaw cannot play, he would be replaced by Jim Wiemer, a scratch Wednesday, or Rob Whistle, who has recovered from a tendon problem in his shoulder.

Tonight's game is the 10th in 17 days for the Rangers, who went the limit against Philadelphia in the first round while Washington had a four-day break.

During the series, the Rangers have been outscored by 10-2 in the first period and 6-4 in the second, but they have an 8-6 edge in the third period and overtime.

"We've got a good defensive base now, and that's what we need, because when they start flying, it gets scary," said winger Don Maloney.