UNIONDALE, N.Y., FEB. 26 -- While the first-place Philadelphia Flyers begin a five-game road trip Saturday night in Los Angeles, their principal Patrick Division challengers, the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, will go head to head at Nassau Coliseum (WDCA-TV-20 at 7 o'clock).

Both the Capitals, who trail the Flyers by five points, and the Islanders, only two back after a seven-game unbeaten streak, think they are capable of finishing first. Each would like to, if for no other reason than to avoid yet another Washington-Islanders matchup in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It will be a major task, but I think we have a legitimate chance to finish first," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "We have three games left with them {the Flyers} and obviously we have to win two of the three.

"We have a chance to gain some ground while the Flyers are out west, but we can't have any games where we don't play to potential. We won't win every game, but every one has to be winnable."

Because of a schedule quirk, the Capitals will play 13 of their remaining 18 games against Patrick opponents. By contrast, the Islanders have only seven of 18 within the division, the Flyers nine of 19.

"We'll have to be up on a consistent basis, but it's easier to get up for competitive teams," Murray said. "I want our guys to play well, with a lot of emotion. When the games are important, we seem to get better play out of more people. At this time of year that's good, because it helps you get ready for the playoffs."

He would like to finish first and play the survivor of the Pittsburgh-New Jersey-Rangers struggle for fourth. But he said he doesn't fear a sixth straight April series against the Islanders.

"Sometimes you wish for a different matchup," he said. "But we know them and I wouldn't feel uncomfortable playing them. Right now we're getting the best goaltending we've had since I've been here and we have more guys who can score. Those were areas that hurt us before."

His current concern is the condition of goalie Pete Peeters, the NHL's best on the infrequent occasions when he is healthy.

Peeters, troubled by flu the last week, was struck on the foot by a shot at practice today and, although X-rays revealed no breaks, he was hobbling on crutches. Accordingly, the Capitals summoned Alain Raymond from Fort Wayne for potential backup duty to Clint Malarchuk Saturday.

Meanwhile, New York Coach Terry Simpson is bedeviled by an improbable injury list that was augmented Thursday when winger Mikko Makela's left elbow became severely inflamed, apparently from an insect bite.

Of the pursuit of the Flyers, Simpson said: "We'd like to think we're still in the running. We've been playing very well, considering all our injuries. The next couple of weeks are very important.

"We'd like to finish first; everybody would, because going into the playoffs you'd like every available advantage in your corner. But advantages like home ice can be overcome. The one thing we would like is to go into the playoffs playing our best hockey."

The Islanders have been playing remarkable hockey. Their last defeat was at Capital Centre Feb. 12, when Washington wiped out a 2-0 deficit to win, 6-2. Over the last four games, the Islanders have permitted only four goals despite injuries that have riddled their defense.

"Since the {all-star} break, our defense has been playing unbelievable," said goalie Bill Smith. "The only exception was in Washington and that was my fault."

Three regular defensemen missed Thursday's tie against Chicago -- Ken Morrow with a shoulder separation, Steve Konroyd with facial fractures and Tomas Jonsson with a bruised thigh. Gord Dineen, sprained ankle, and Brian Curran, fractured jaw, came off the injury list for the game. Denis Potvin, who suffered a sprained knee against Washington, returned to the lineup over the last weekend. Ken Leiter missed two recent games with back spasms.

Jonsson at least should be back Saturday. If he can't play, there is a possibility that U.S. Olympian Jeff Norton would be activated.

Asked about that, General Manager Bill Torrey said: "He could play, but I doubt it."

The Capitals, meanwhile, announced that their U.S. Olympian, right wing Steve Leach, would practice with the team Monday. A decision on whether to ship him to Binghamton will be made by March 8, the date he would have to join the Whalers in order to be eligible for the AHL playoffs.

"We'll bring him to Washington and then go from there," General Manager David Poile said in Calgary. "We'll see whether Bryan chooses to use him . . . If he's not going to help us, we'll send him down.

"Steve is a role player. He didn't score much here, but he's aggressive, he has a lot of speed and he can check."

Leach has bounced between Washington and Binghamton since he was signed out of the University of New Hampshire in March 1986. He joined the Olympic team because he did not figure in the Capitals' plans and Washington already has one right wing, Ed Kastelic, sitting out most of its games. Staff writer Leonard Shapiro contributed to this report from Calgary.

Rangers 2, Devils 1: In East Rutherford, N.J., Norm MacIver's rising 45-foot slap shot broke a second-period tie and enabled the Rangers to escape last place in the Patrick Division for the first time since Nov. 7. Their goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck, stopped 33 shots.

It was the Rangers' second 2-1 victory in two nights and their 60 points moved them from sixth place to fourth. New Jersey and Pittsburgh, which was idle, have 59.

The loss was the third straight for the Devils, who aren't scoring. In their last three games, they have outshot opponents by 118-50, but have scored three goals and are one for 26 on power plays. They were zero for eight last night.

MacIver's game-winner came at 5:18 of the second period. Chris Nilan bounced a pass off the sideboards to James Patrick, who fed it across to MacIver at the left point.

Nordiques 3, Red Wings 2: Michel Goulet's 35th goal of the season, 5:57 into the second period, broke a 2-2 tie in Detroit.

Quebec goaltender Mario Brunetta stopped the last 27 shots he faced.

The score was 2-2 after one period, then Peter Stastny passed to Goulet, whose shot from the slot beat Glen Hanlon.

Flames 5, Canucks 3: In Vancouver, John Tonelli scored one goal and assisted on three others in Calgary's next-to-last stop on an 11-game road trip caused by the Winter Olympics.

The victory allowed the Flames, who have the NHL's best road record at 18-11-4, to pass idle Edmonton to take first place in the Smythe Division. They return home March 2.