The Patrick Division race isn't likely to be settled in February, much less November and December, but the Washington Capitals are in the early stages of a long run of divisional games. They need to keep pace.

The weekend split with Pittsburgh began a stretch in which Washington will play nine of 11 games against divisional foes. The third in that sequence will be tonight against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Montreal Canadiens will visit Capital Centre Friday night, but then the Capitals will play five straight against Patrick teams.

The Rangers, who have beaten the Capitals in both meetings so far this year, are in first place in the division and first place overall. The Capitals are in fourth place in the division with their Patrick record (5-5) on a par with their overall mark (13-13).

"We have to get into the Patrick Division race on a consistent level," Coach Terry Murray said. . . .

Goalie Jim Hrivnak hobbled into practice yesterday. "It's just swelling," Hrivnak said of his strained left knee, which will be reexamined Monday.

Don Beaupre, who hasn't played a game since Oct. 30 when he pulled a groin muscle, practiced again yesterday. "I'm fine," said Beaupre, who probably will start against the Rangers. . . .

Defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov, who missed Saturday's game in Pittsburgh with a sore back, worked out yesterday and will play tonight. Asked if this might be a recurring problem, Murray said: "I don't know. He said he had it in August. Who knows about backs? If we had that answer, Pittsburgh {with the injured Mario Lemieux} would hire us." . . .

Bob Joyce, who collected a new batch of stitches around his left eye to go with the ones above the right, practiced with a shield yesterday, but wasn't sure if he would wear it in the game. . . .

Left wing Nick Kypreos has had a sore elbow for a couple of weeks and fluid was drained from it Monday. But he practiced yesterday and probably will play tonight.