VOORHEES, N.J., OCT. 21 -- The Philadelphia Flyers know it will not be an easy task to record a fourth straight first-place finish in the Patrick Division.

With Tim Kerr lost for perhaps half the season and suspended goaltender Ron Hextall yet to stop a puck in anger, the Flyers have been struggling. Outscored, 22-17, in their first six games, they have been fortunate to produce a winning record (3-2-1).

While the Flyers have made minimal changes in the lineup that took them to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final in May, the rest of the Patrick teams have been upgrading themselves for what promises to be the best divisional race since the Patrick became the NHL's only six-team grouping in 1982.

"I do think the Patrick Division is really improved," Coach Mike Keenan said today. "The teams are tight and the standings reflect that. It just takes a look at the overall standings to see that all the Patrick teams have gotten off to a pretty good start.

"While I think everybody else has improved, I think we have, too. Just the playoff experience of last year has to make us a better team. It's pretty tough to go through that type of experience without improving."

Keenan will get a fair idea of where his club stands when the Washington Capitals visit the Spectrum Thursday night. If the Flyers have been in a groove as a first-place finisher the past three years, the Capitals have been an even more consistent challenger, winding up second four straight seasons.

"They've been really competitive with us, but it's just been a matter of them not winning from time to time," Keenan said. "They certainly have improved this year with Bengt Gustafsson back in the lineup. He's a very creative player and he adds a strong dimension they didn't have last year."

As for Dale Hunter, the man the Capitals acquired to combat the Flyers' toughness, Keenan was hesitant to make an assessment without a first-hand look.

"Whether he'll play the way in Washington that he did in Quebec, I don't know," Keenan said. "His reputation has perhaps preceded him, but I don't know if you can compare the intense rivalry between Quebec and Montreal with our division.

"I know we're pretty intense in our division, but it's more than a hockey game when Montreal and Quebec play. Dale Hunter certainly is a feisty type of player. How that will affect the Washington Capitals' performance, I don't know."

One of the strange aspects of the Philadelphia-Washington rivalry is that while the Flyers are the Capitals' principal foe, Philadelphia always has generated more emotion for contests against the Islanders and Rangers.

"The Islanders' rivalry stems from them beating the Flyers in the Cup {in 1980}," said defenseman Brad Marsh. "The Rangers are the Rangers. With Washington the last three or four or five years, it's been a case of two really good teams that play good defense meeting in a lot of battles for first place.

"Washington has always used the games against us as a measuring stick and vice versa. Washington always got us up because they were a good measuring stick."

Center Ron Sutter said, "Washington has so much talent and they work very hard, but every year they lack something at the end. Their biggest problem is the Islanders and maybe that's because they worry more about us.

"Our division is so much stronger now. Anyone can beat anyone home or away. Whether it's Washington or the Devils, we have to be mentally prepared every night. Every game is tougher."

Sutter was the unhappy target of some Keenan psychology after the Flyers won only one of their first four games. Keenan benched him for a rematch against the Islanders, who had breezed to a 6-0 victory in the Spectrum.

The rest of the team got the message and responded with a 4-3 victory on Long Island. The next night, Sutter was back and led the Flyers to a 3-2 triumph over Pittsburgh. Sutter won 17 of 24 faceoffs, including eight of eight when matched against Mario Lemieux.

Sutter still professed today to be upset by the move, saying, "Mike thought I hadn't been working hard enough and I disagreed with him. Every guy on this team works hard, whether in practice or a game. But there are games where you work hard and don't accomplish anything and others where you work hard and get a lot accomplished. Something like that doesn't change anything."

Keenan thinks it does. Asked about his club's commitment to the regular season, Keenan said, "I think the incentive is still there. A week ago, maybe I wouldn't be so quick to answer, but I feel that way right now. Our players have developed a great deal of pride in their play and in our team."

Capitals Notes: Philadelphia right wing Scott Mellanby, who missed the last two games with a cut finger, will play Thursday . . . Washington's Bob Gould will not dress. Coach Bryan Murray said, "His {broken} foot is healing very nicely, but it's not 100 percent."