For the Washington Capitals, the playoffs before the playoffs begin at noon today when the Philadelphia Flyers bus down I-95 for a nearly sold out pre-Super Bowl date at Capital Centre.

Minutes after a 4-3 victory Friday over the Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals were already fastening their psychological chin straps.

"We know what it's going to be like," Bob Gould said. "It's going to be intense and physical. But maybe that's good for us. Games like that seem to bring out the best in us."

Indeed. The Capitals got a tantalizing taste of that excitement Friday when Dave Christian twice broke ties in the last five minutes. His second one came with 90 seconds remaining and put the final touch on an intense, furious game that included 18 penalties and more emotion than the Capitals had in earlier games against New Jersey, Buffalo and Winnipeg combined.

Whatever warm-up the Capitals had the first four months of the season is over. They will play 20 of their last 29 games against Patrick Division teams and, after Friday's victory, they were four points behind first-place Philadelphia but only three points in front of fifth-place Pittsburgh.

"It's an important stretch," Capitals goalie Pete Peeters said. "It sure is. I don't know what has happened to the Patrick Division. It used to be that a team would go on a run and sort of take over the division. Now, when one teams goes on a run, everyone else does, and when one team is losing, the others are, too. It's amazing that it's this close."

It's also a break for Washington, a team that has flirted with .500 all season. Today's game will finish a five-game homestand, the Capitals' longest of the season. In their first four games, they are 2-1-1, but after today will play only four of their 11 February games at Capital Centre.

Yesterday afternoon, only about 250 scattered tickets remained for today's game.

The best news for the Capitals is that Friday's huge crowd and the challenge of playing the Canadiens brought out the best in a team that has often seemed to rise and fall depending on the level of competition. Two critical officiating calls went against them. The Canadiens came back from deficits of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. Still, the Capitals won.

"We showed a little bit of character out there," Coach Bryan Murray said. "We played real hard. We didn't score on all our chances, but we worked hard to get the chances."

He had wanted his forecheckers to clear the puck more quickly, and the Capitals did that Friday, holding Montreal to three shots in the first period and finishing with a 30-25 advantage for the night.

Their other good news was from Peeters, who has recovered from a series of injuries to turn in three complete games in the first four games of this homestand. Before that, he hadn't had one since Dec. 23. He's also 4-1-3 in his last eight starts, and his 2.61 goals-against average is the best in the NHL.

"I've never had a season like this before," he said, "and it has taken a while to get the feel of the ice again. I've felt very comfortable the last couple of games."

He was at his best 15:20 into the second period when he found himself without his stick and facing all-star Larry Robinson. Peeters was skidding back into the Washington goal as he caught the puck.

The goal judge, thinking Peeters had backed too far into the net, turned the light on signaling a goal. But Peeters jumped up and skated over and handed the puck to referee Kerry Fraser, who didn't allow the goal.

"It all happened in an instant," Peeters said, "and I was just managed to get back to the right-hand post. I made kind of a half U-turn and stuck my glove up. I didn't see the light go on, but I saw what had happened; I thought, 'Oh no.' "

That play kept the Capitals in a game that Christian's 23rd goal appeared to win 15:47 into the third period. But Montreal's Mats Naslund broke away to tie it at 18:04.

Christian scored again with 90 seconds remaining. That one came after Scott Stevens faked a slap shot in the middle of the ice. Christian slipped behind Robinson and cut toward the right post, where he took Stevens' pass in stride.

"We certainly did some things right," Murray said. "Montreal is a very good hockey team. They control the puck and attack you. We showed a lot of character because there's lot of adversity in a game like that."