The defense still breaks down. The power play was slow cranking up. Coach Ron Wilson has yet to show off his flashier suits. Save for those relatively cosmetic problems, the Washington Capitals' preseason has been a stirring success.

The Capitals stomped the depleted Philadelphia Flyers, 8-2, tonight at First Union Center, running their exhibition mark to 5-1 with the preseason finale Tuesday against Carolina in Norfolk. Any NHL executive would quickly point out the insignificance of September hockey (the Capitals were great in the preseason last year, only to collapse when the games counted), but all look for positive signs this time of year, and Washington has plenty.

"Last year's preseason was just as good, but the difference this year is we have more difficult decisions to make than we have in the past," Wilson said. "[Tuesday] night, with a couple of exceptions, the lineup is going to be an indication of who's going to start the season with us. I'm going to have to sleep on it. There are a lot of tough decisions."

Summer acquisition Craig Billington, the backup goalie, has been brilliant, stopping 56 of 59 shots, including several dazzling efforts when his defense has flopped. Key youngsters Jan Bulis and Yogi Svejkovsky have played well, and recently re-signed winger Richard Zednik will make his preseason debut Tuesday. Veteran Jamie Huscroft and youngster Alexei Tezikov, battling for the final spot on defense, have both shined, though the 21-year-old is likely to start in the minors, where he will play more.

There is replenished depth at forward, too, with Glen Metropolit, Jeff Toms and Alexandre Volchkov looking worthy of the NHL (though likely headed to the minors), and 1999 first-round picks Kris Beech and Michal Sivek perhaps just a year away. James Black and Ken Klee have quietly thrived and, most importantly for the league's most injury-ridden team, no one is banged up.

Tonight's effort was the best thus far. Jeff Halpern, who has virtually cemented the spot as the fourth-line center, converted a breakaway less than three minutes in, scoring his first goal with his father and many former Princeton teammates watching. Toms, who has been flying in camp, fluttered a shot past Brian Boucher with 7 minutes 56 seconds remaining in the opening period. Billington robbed Mike Maneluk and Daymond Langkow on consecutive breakaways, the Capitals headed up ice and Svejkovsky slipped in a sneaky backhand 5:25 into the second period. Black, the team leader with three goals, scored on successive power plays and the lead was 5-0 late in the second period.

When Philadelphia crept to 5-2, Metropolit scored his second goal in three games, Toms finished a one-timer a few minutes later and Steve Konowalchuk capped the onslaught with about nine minutes to play.

"It's unfortunate some guys are going to have to go down to Portland," Wilson said. "But just because they start there doesn't mean they'll finish there. You can never have too much depth."

Capitals Notes: NHL Security began investigating Saturday's scuffle between Capitals General Manager George McPhee and several members of the Chicago Blackhawks' organization. The league was interviewing eyewitnesses today (Chicago GM Bob Murray allegedly threw his shoe at McPhee in the incident; McPhee allegedly started the fight by punching Blackhawks Coach Lorne Molleken in the left eye) and will continue to do so this week, with a verdict on fines and suspensions perhaps coming by week's end. Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz called a teleconference with the Chicago media Monday morning to chastise the Capitals.

"If these gentlemen want to come to Chicago and go in a room and turn the lights out, I'd be only happy to see them," Wirtz said. . . . The Capitals picked up Ken Sutton from New Jersey in Monday's waiver draft. . . . Center Michal Pivonka was assigned to Kansas City of the IHL Monday. . . . Forward Matt Herr was assigned to Portland.