The Washington Capitals earned their fifth consecutive victory Tuesday night when they disposed of the disposable Quebec Nordiques, 4-1, at Le Colisee.

No other team in the National Hockey League has as long a string of victories as the Capitals, who also moved into second place in the Patrick Division.

With 20 points, the Capitals were just two behind the first-place New York Rangers in the Patrick Division until the Rangers beat Buffalo last night and one ahead of the third-place New Jersey Devils. The Devils missed a chance to gain when they lost to the last-place New York Islanders last night in East Rutherford, N.J.

Besides being home to one of the NHL's weakest teams and some of its best food, Quebec City is a propeller town. Not that many planes fly into the local airport and many that do don't require jet fuel.

The Capitals' chartered plane was one of those prop planes, and it was delayed by snowy weather. Because of the late arrival home, Coach Terry Murray scrapped the workout he had planned for yesterday.

The team has two days to prepare for its bid to extend its winning ways. The Buffalo Sabres will visit for a 7:35 p.m. game Saturday, with the Boston Bruins stopping by the next night. These games might provide some indication whether the Capitals ultimately will be at the top or bottom of the Patrick Division mix.

The team's last two victories were over the Islanders and Nordiques, who have a combined record of 9-20-3. The Sabres were one of the preseason favorites to move past Boston and win the Adams Division.

Apparently those expectations led to a shortness of breath, for the Sabres started the season 0-4-3. Buffalo has been better lately, though. It's 4-1-1 in its last six games, losing last night to the Rangers. Boston, meanwhile, broke a tie for first with Montreal by shutting out the Canadiens last night.

"I think both games will be benchmark games," Murray said yesterday. "I would hope we could play the same way we did {Tuesday}. Or at least until the third period, when we started to make that extra pass and were probably a little too creative. I hope we'll get back to doing the things that got us here."

The Capitals again played solid defense. They were ahead by 4-0 -- on goals by Steve Leach, John Druce and Peter Bondra (twice) -- before the Nordiques scored with less than six minutes left in the game.

"It takes away a little, but not that much," said goalie Mike Liut, who would have had his 25th career shutout.

Druce assisted on Leach's goal and on Bondra's first one, which gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead with 5:54 left in the second period.

"That third goal. . . . " Quebec Coach Dave Chambers said, without finishing his sentence. The Nordiques thought it should not have counted, but once it did, the effect was troubling for Quebec, which has dropped seven in a row.

Druce now leads the Capitals in goals (eight) and points (17). Bondra has had chances, but had only two goals before Tuesday. By the end of Tuesday, he also had a sore knee from a slash. But Murray said he didn't think it would be a problem.

"There was a lot of that," Murray said of the uncalled slashing. "But I think it's nothing ice won't take care of."

The Capitals are winning because they are getting solid defense, timely goaltending and outstanding special teams play. The power-play unit accounted for two goals Tuesday night.

"We also get along real well," Murray said of the reasons for the team's success. "The players enjoy being around each other. The camaraderie is very good. The veterans are helping the new guys. The veterans want to help because they know everyone benefits by winning in this world, with contracts going up.

"The better you play, the better things go for you in negotiations. It comes back to playing well as a team, all 20 guys who dress each night. When that happens, most of the time the better players will emerge."