Washington's Mallard will try to cook Quebec's Goose tonight when those strange birds man the nets in a Capital Centre hockey game that could pass for a reunion.

Ron Lapointe, an assistant coach with the Capitals for two seasons, makes his first appearance here as a head coach. He took over the Nordiques' reins Dec. 4 and dropped a 2-1 decision to his old boss, Bryan Murray, in Quebec Dec. 22.

Gaetan Duchesne, the longtime Washington left wing, will be on the right side with Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet tonight as he makes his second visit in a Quebec uniform. The first time, on Nov. 4, Duchesne scored the opening goal as the Nordiques won, 4-1.

Alan Haworth, a 21-goal scorer for the seventh time, will be centering Lane Lambert and Jeff Jackson in Quebec's version of the plumbers. For many years, Haworth wore No. 15 for Washington as he set up plays for Greg Adams and departed Craig Laughlin.

The Capitals' Clint (Mallard) Malarchuk, who came here with Dale Hunter in the summer deal for Duchesne, Haworth and a first-round draft pick, owns the hottest goaltending hands in the National Hockey League. Since the All-Star break, he has recorded a 1.59 goals-against mark and three shutouts.

At the opposite end of the ice will be his old partner, Mario (Goose) Gosselin. When both played for Quebec, Malarchuk started every game against Washington, but in the two meetings this season, Gosselin has allowed only three goals.

Handshakes and jokes and memories were exchanged yesterday as both teams practiced at Capital Centre. But friendship will be forgotten tonight because this is a vital game for both teams. Washington is locked in a three-way battle for first place in the Patrick Division with Philadelphia and the New York Islanders; Quebec trails Hartford by three points in the struggle for the last playoff berth in the Adams Division.

"When you take over, you get the schedule and look at certain games," Lapointe said. "At that time, the game in Quebec and this one meant something special. But now that's all secondary. We're in a playoff race and we need the two points."

Murray concurred, saying, "It's just another game. We're fighting for good position in the Patrick Division and they're fighting for a playoff spot. It's a big game for both teams, but we can't exaggerate it. The divisional games have taken priority, we've done very well and now we have to get motivated for Quebec and Vancouver {Sunday afternoon}."

The teams prepared in different ways yesterday. The Capitals conducted a routine practice, while Lapointe and assistants Guy Lapointe and Alain Chainey joined 12 players in a game of shinny at the Nordiques' optional session.

"You have to let the coach score if you want to play tomorrow," said Gosselin, who has played 48 games this season. A year ago, Michel Bergeron limited him to 30, claiming Gosselin, at 5-8 and 160, wasn't strong enough for more.

Malarchuk recalled some happy moments with Gosselin and said, "Goose was a good partner. We were good friends on and off the ice. He's easy-going, a little loose, a really good guy."

That is a fair description of Malarchuk, too. He has lost six pounds this week from a stomach virus and commented, "I don't have a lot to lose. I'm starting to shed feathers and the down is coming off."

Duchesne, who scored two goals Wednesday in Toronto for a career-high 19, was ignoring proferred handshakes yesterday, claiming, "Don't touch them. I've got hot hands."

Duchesne feigned shock when he learned 2,200 tickets remained unsold for tonight's game.

"I was sure it was sold out the day after the trade was made," Duchesne said. "I can't buy them all. Just tell people to come out and see me get my 20th goal."

Duchesne would already be at 20 for the first time since junior days except for a controversial call by referee Don Koharski Monday night. Montreal had a 2-1 lead with one second left at Le Colisee, when Duchesne apparently scored. Koharski, however, washed it out because Paul Gillis had interfered with the goalie.

"It happens 100 times a year and they call it once," Duchesne said.

One former Capital who must pass up this homecoming is defenseman Robert Picard. He suffered a fractured lumbar vertebra Feb. 6. With Normand Rochefort and Terry Carkner nursing injuries and Gord Donnelly completing a five-game suspension for a pregame fight with Montreal's John Kordic, the Nordiques tonight will ice a young defense that averages only 21.6 years of age.

"Jeff Brown is our Larry Murphy -- he's playing very well," Lapointe said. "And Stephane Guerard is showing promise. It's encouraging to see young guys developing like that.

"They have a better team than we do, that's obvious. But we'll show up. You have to win the two points on the ice."

Red Wings 6, North Stars 3: Adam Oates and Bob Probert each scored twice to lead host Detroit over Minnesota last night.

With injured star Steve Yzerman watching from a private suite, the Red Wings officially clinched a Norris Division playoff spot. Yzerman, the team's leading scorer, suffered ligament damage to his right knee Tuesday night and is out for the rest of the season.

Oates' first goal, with 2:51 remaining in the first period, gave Detroit a 3-1 lead.