For 40 days and 40 nights Washington's stubborn hockey fans have wandered in a winless wilderness, suffering the torments of Capital punishment.

"I'm at witts end," moaned season-ticket holder Don Tuttle on Sundays as the Caps failed to win for the 19th straight game. "I'm ready to the fire the organist.

"She's awful."

Indeed, that is how low Caps fans have sunk in their puckish purgatory. Even in an organist cannot escape their spleen.

The denizens of Capital Centre seats are growing desperate and restless. They passed the teeth-gnashing stage long ago. When the club squandered November without a victory, some psychic barrier of restraint was crossed. Now the truly demented suggestions and fanatical vows and bitter barbs are surfacing.

"I'm going on a hunger strike until they win," ranted one 200-pound fan after Sunday's 4-2 loss Pittsburgh.

"See ya around, Twiggy," snapped his friend.

Capital fans seem to fluctuate wildly between feelings of love and hate for their team, often changing sides of the fence in mid-sentence.

"I go home and can't sleep nights for worrying baout (coach) Tommy McVie," said white-haired Pearlie McKeough. "I haven't skated since I was a girl, but when the Caps are a man down, I feel like going on the ice to help the poor dears."

That sense of compassion and even pity, is second nature to fan who endured Washington's 19-24-15 record in the franchise's first two years of infancy.

But now in Year IV the spectators exepcted much more and their bile rises more easily. Some are beginning to think that an angry little old lady with an umbrella might be able to clear out tha crease better than the Caps' defensemen.

They are almost sure that she could score more goals than the Caps' forwards, who seem to be sledding on double-runner skates.

"It makes me crazy the way this tean can't put the puck in the damn net," growled Tuttlt, a lawyer who is so devoted that he sometimes leaves the offive to attend a team practice. "Our guys are so overanxious to score that they look like they're wetting their pants."

Many in the stands seem to burn with a harder, more fiercely optimistic intensity than the Cap players on the ice, who must sacrifice their remaining teeth in a losing cause.

"Once we win just one game, it's going to snowball, and the Caps will win six, maybe 10 games in a row," insisted mid-rink fanatic Israel Krause. "This is a wonderful team."

After an initial burst of fury and pet peeves is past, almost every Cap fan comes around to a four-square defense of his team and its management.

"We all have our particular villains," said Leonard Wheat. "Somebody's mad that (goalie) Bernie Wolfe was sent down to Hershley, or that Ron Low defected or that they traded Hartland Monahan for a future draft choice on opening night.

"But I always thought Wolfe was an overrated flopper who couldn't control a rebound. And Monahan wasn't actually that much. Just a wild shooter. None of the Cap's personnel decisions have really been that bad because none of the players involved have been especially good. face it, the Cans are a bunch of losers or we wouldn't have 'em.

"We just have to be infinitely patient. But, I'll tell you, if they ever trade away our No. 1 draft choices, the fans who are left will tear this place down."

Those who still stand by the Caps are rooted to their seats. "Management doesn't have to worry about losing any more fans," said lawyer Fred Drasner. "We're down to rock bottom now. The 9,000 to 12,000 fans who come out now will stick with this team forever."

All that those remaining devotees ask is that they be treated like what they are - hockey addicts.

"I don't mind that the team is awful," said Tuttle. "I expect it. You still see glimpses of good hockey . . . from the other teams.

"And I don't care if they pad their attendance figures. That's common in the NHL for all but a very few teams.

"But when the insipid organist interrupts our organized chants with Pop Goes the Weasle, I want to kill.

"And when they advertise King Kong Night for months and have people dressed as gorrillas skating around, I'm insulted.

"And when they announced over the PA the name of the jerk who just won a case of steel wool from Grand Union, I wonder why I drove an hour to get to an ice rink in the middle of a cornfield in Prince George's county."

These acerbic, but tenacious fans of the worst team ever to play hockey form a fraternal order that needs no initiation rite.

"Cap Centre is an outpost of hockey in an alien land," said one fan. "I've never gone into a Washington bar and been able to get a hockey conversation going."

For such fans almost any price - in dollars and anguish - is cheap. Well, almost.

"Actually, I think maybe they ought to raise the prices again," said season-ticket holder Drasner. "After all, $9.50 for a ticket, plus $2 parking, plus $1.20 for a Stroh's beer . . . that's awful cheap for a team that wins a game almost every month."

Drasner shakes his head, disappointed with himself. "Golly," he said, "could I be getting bitter."

Few of Washington's puck nuts stay bitter for long. A group of junior high schoolers with team jerseys and sticks marched up an aisle, and a gruff voice stage whispered, "Hey, there goes the Caps' farm team."

A gentle ripple of patient laughter ran through the crowd. The present may just be a hidious replay of the past, but 1684 will come some day. Instant solutions, miracle cures, Capital ideas - all are in short supply among the Caps long-suffering believers.

"This season has been doubly disappointing because the fans expected far too much after our strong finish last year. And the team was guilty of letting that excitement become unrealistic," said one middle-aged fan. "When we won on opening night, it seemed like anything less this year than a spot in the playoffs was a failure."

Now the Caps must start over. "The most important thing they have to do is also the hardest thing," said Tuttle. "They built a sense of rising expectation within the team, and now that's crushed again. How can these guys beat their heads against a wall every night just to become a respectable when they had fooled themselves all summer into thinking they were on the verge of being a contender."

Perhaps these 40 days of famine have purged the Caps of their illusions. Surely the path out of the wilderness is well marked. The team's next five games - starting the evening against Voncouver at Capital Centre at 7:35 p.m. - are all against losing teams.

When the puck is dropped, the Caps can be sure of one thing: those screaming, sharp-tongued folks left, in the stands are no faint-hearted disciples.