OAK PARK, MICH., JAN. 23 -- Purists and opponents beware.

The Washington Capitals, who were the least-penalized team in the NHL as of Tuesday morning, say they are through being kind and considerate.

"Detroit tried to play a physical game," Coach Terry Murray said today after practice and before the team's flight to Philadelphia, where it will meet the Flyers Thursday night. "I want to upgrade our team toughness."

Murray was referring to the first shift in Tuesday night's 2-1 overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings.

On that shift, Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert knocked down Kevin Hatcher and John Druce, two of the Capitals' top scorers. Murray had been planning to go to a more physical game; Probert made it necessary to carry out the plan immediately.

"They got off to a good start," said Nick Kypreos, who sent the Red Wings' Yves Racine into the crossbar on the second shift, "but being one of the more physical players, I wanted to show that we'll hit back."

The new strategy helped to snap a three-game losing streak and pushed the Capitals within two points of fourth-place New Jersey in the Patrick Division.

The Capitals were the third-most-penalized team in the NHL last season. And if you ask the Devils and New York Rangers why they lost to Washington in the Patrick Division playoffs last season, they will tell you that, aside from the scoring of Dino Ciccarelli and Druce, it was the physical pounding delivered by Washington.

"Even against Boston, we were hitting pretty well," Alan May said of the Wales Conference finals, which the Bruins won, 4-0. "We just weren't putting the puck in the net."

May was the team leader in penalty minutes last season with 339, although he left the team shorthanded just 16 times in 77 games.

He has missed time this season with hand and shoulder injuries, so his penalty minutes are down (119 in 36 games). Murray benched him last Tuesday in St. Louis because he wasn't providing the physical play the coach witnessed most of last season.

Clearly, this year's group is more finesse-oriented, and although folks in Toronto were surprised to see Al Iafrate's penalty minutes rise this season, that's one of the secondary reasons the Capitals obtained his services.

The main personnel difference is that Scott Stevens is now in St. Louis and Neil Sheehy hasn't played a game because of a variety of injuries.

"If somebody pushed Scotty, he always retaliated," May said. That reaction allowed others to get involved; there was a certain "foxhole mentality," May said. "Last night, five guys were in every situation and we hadn't seen that all year. Dimitri Khristich was throwing the body around and everybody kept talking about hits between shifts."

The aggressiveness established by May, Kypreos, Steve Leach and Dale Hunter carried over to others. Red Wings Coach Bryan Murray said Hunter "won the game" by drawing a high-sticking major on Probert and catching Rick Zomba with what appeared to be an inadvertent high-stick (which was also penalized).

And both Capitals goals -- Calle Johansson's with 2:12 left in the third period and Mike Ridley's with 1:52 left in overtime -- came about after persistence in the corners. The theory is that enough pressure early may lead to mistakes by an opponent late in a game.

The Capitals were the second-least-penalized team as of this morning. Murray said he doesn't feel this year's team needs to be among the leaders in that category, but he'd rather be nearer that end than the one where his team is now.

For the Capitals to get back to the playoffs, they must keep games close, at least partially through more physical play.

"It doesn't mean running guys," Kypreos said of cheap shots. "It means eliminating your man and keep him from jumping into the play. We haven't been doing that lately and it's cost us games."

Capitals Notes: The team practiced at the Compuware/Oak Park Arena. Compuware Inc. sponsors a famous midget team whose graduates include Hatcher, Iafrate and the Islanders' Pat LaFontaine. . . . Steve Seftel made his NHL debut against the Red Wings. "When I was called up, my heart started beating faster," said Seftel, who has been in the minors for 2 1/2 seasons. "I was trying to tell myself that it's the same ice and they are just hockey players like I am." . . .

Murray doesn't anticipate Rod Langway (back spasms) being ready to play Friday against Minnesota. . . . Peter Bondra (shoulder) practiced but probably won't play against the Flyers. . . . With the threat of terrorism in mind, Capital Centre now will be closed to the public during team practices. Mount Vernon Recreation Center, the Capitals' other practice location, is a public building, so team officials can't deny access to practices.