The Washington Capitals' finest season could come to an abrupt end tonight at Madison Square Garden. If it does, there will be many questions to be debated.

The Capitals trail the New York Rangers, 3-2, in the best-of-seven Patrick Division final series. Although the Rangers are a good, hard-working team, they have been riddled by injuries and not until they defeated Washington, 4-2, Friday night at Capital Centre did they reach the .500 mark for the entire season.

The Capitals certainly were aware of the pitfall presented by the Rangers, despite Washington's 29-point regular season advantage. Philadelphia beat out the Rangers by 32 points but fell in the first round. No clearer warning could have been issued.

The Capitals are searching for answers, but Coach Bryan Murray apparently is not wondering about his choice of goaltenders. He indicated yesterday that he would stay with Pete Peeters in goal. The team could use a spark and Al Jensen has been very successful against the Rangers, but he has not played since March 29.

"It would be a difficult thing to do to Al Jensen," Murray said. "If we'd felt earlier on he was the goalie to win this series, we would have played him before. Game sharpness has to be a factor, especially in a critical game like this. Pete Peeters has been pretty solid. I don't think making a change would necessarily be a positive thing."

Murray does intend to alter some line and defense pairings, however. Mike Gartner, the best of the Capitals in Game 5, will play on a line with Bob Carpenter and Gaetan Duchesne. Bob Gould will center Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin, while Lou Franceschetti and Dave Christian will flank Alan Haworth. The fourth unit consists of Jorgen Pettersson, Mark Taylor and Steve Leach.

On defense, Kevin Hatcher, burned three times in the last two games, will be shifted to the steadying side of Langway. John Barrett will play with Larry Murphy, while Scott Stevens will partner Greg Smith.

Still, the most pressing question at the moment is one for which the Capitals have no answer. Why is a team that has prided itself on controlling the game with a lead watching an advantage disappear?

Over the first 71 games of the season, the Capitals on only nine occasions saw the opposition wipe out a two-goal lead. Yet that misfortune has occurred 10 times in the past 17 games, four times during the present series.

"Whenever we led by a goal in the third period, we always knew we would keep it," said Haworth. "We're trying to figure out why we can't seem to do it now. You can blame it on a whole lot of things -- the forwards not coming back and doing the job defensively, the defense not doing the job defensively.

"I don't think we're pressing too hard, although we may be overhandling the puck a little bit. And I don't think we're sitting back. Maybe we're too scared to lose a lead or something. It seems like we have so many chances, 10 or more, and we don't score. Then we make two or three errors and they score right away."

"There's no answer for it," said defenseman Rod Langway. "It just happens. We're not doing anything differently. There are so many factors involved, we can't pinpoint one. I just wish it never would happen."

Wishing won't make it stop, of course. What the Capitals seem to need is killer instinct, the desire to kick a foe when he is down that seems so characteristic of the Edmonton Oilers.

In that respect, Murray may be more of a battler than his team. During his postgame press conference Friday, Murray saw injured Rangers defenseman Ron Greschner smiling and interrupted his comments to say, "Don't smile, Ron. It's not over."

Yesterday, Murray spoke to the players before an abbreviated practice at Capital Centre, the team's last look at the familiar ice surface this season unless it wins tonight and forces a seventh game on Tuesday.

"I talked to most of the guys and they seemed to feel there was some pressure on them because of the home-ice situation," Murray said. "They were pressing in our building. Now, the Rangers are going home and the pressure's on them. What have we got to lose?"

At that point, Murray noted the obvious and said, "The series, obviously. But if there's ever a time to go out and play our game without worrying about anything, this is it."

Murray, like Haworth, felt the Capitals were not taking advantage of a lot of chances.

"The first period last night, the game could have been over," Murray said. "But we started to second-guess ourselves, we overplayed the puck and, when we dumped it in, there wasn't much forechecking.

"The Rangers are so loose and gambling so much. They pinched their defense early and got one goal, but it gave us chance after chance. We have made probably five mistakes in the last two games and they've scored on four. They've made 14 and we've taken advantage of one. We're getting quality chances, turnovers at the net, and not finishing."

There is always the possibility that the Rangers may suddenly become more aware of their situation and feel pressure that has thus far been absent because of their scorned status.

Rangers defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen suffered a bruised heel when he was struck by a puck in the third period Friday and is questionable for tonight's game.

If Ruotsalainen cannot play, he most likely will be replaced by Terry Carkner, a 1984 draft choice called up yesterday after his Peterborough junior team was eliminated from the Ontario playoffs. Carkner, a first-rounder chosen three spots before Washington tabbed Hatcher, might play, anyway, since Rob Whistle and Jim Wiemer have been unimpressive.