Today's edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that the St. Louis Blues would be in Washington Sunday, playing against a Capital team that was "winless in its last 21 games."

The writer, obviously composing before Wednesday night's game between the Capitals and Cleveland Barons, simply took it for granted that Capitals would continue on a downhill course. And the Barons, judging by their lethargie performance in the 5-3 contest, probably awarded themselves two points before hitting the snow-clogged roads to largely empty Richfield (Ohio) Coliseum.

The Capitals, as usual, conceded nothing. It has been a long, disappointing, miserable season, but Washington has never thrown in the towl. Indeed, in a fair number of those 20 victoryless games, the Capitals outplayed the opposition. Still, as defenseman Bryan Watson said afterward in the moderately enthusiastic surrounding of the Washington dressing room. "We really needed that."

The longer such a streak continues, the more difficult it becomes to break. Players try too hard and commit costly errors, teammates find themselves placing blame instead of lending encouragement.

Bob Sirois, the Capitals' principal hero, with two goals, including the winner, cited the recent absence of Washington fan support and added, "players were getting down on each other."

Coach Tom McVie recalled on 11-game winless stretch in February which finally ended with a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh.

"The players kept working," McVie said, "and I kept telling them that the work would bring results. Just as I was running out of things to say, we won a couple and they could see that I was rigt.

"This time, I kept up the same talk, telling them that the hard work would pay off. But after a while you could see some guys looking at me like I was crazy. That's an awful long time to go without winning one. Heck, we could have skipped all the hard work and had a good time and just show up for the games and got nine points."

Now the Capitals have 11, still a long way from competitive status. But at least an intolerable burden has been unloaded.

McVie confessed that he had used up his supply of encouraging words before the team meeting that preceded the victory.

"I just told them the only thing I know to tell them," McVie said. "Just keep doing what made us successful before. Keeping guys up and working hard every game was the answer, but the whole thing could have got away.

"There were a lot of games in that span that could have been won. The longer it went, the worse it got. It's been terrible for every player on this team. I didn't think hockey could do this to a person, but you just get numb."

One player numb for different reasons was goalie Jim Bedard. He was struck along side the right cheekbone by a Ron LaLonde shot in the warmup and was unable to play. However, xrays today proved negative and he will be ready if called upon Saturday night, when the Capitals resume action in Atlanta.

"The puck was flipping," Bedard said, "and I put both gloves up when I saw it. It went right between them and I tried to duck away at the last second, but it caught me with the edge. My face was throbbing and it felt lopsided."

The return of left wing Mike Marson gives the Capitals 20 men, one more than the number permitted to dress, so one player will sit out each night.

"Marson is agressive and we needed a little life going after the puck," said general manager Max McNah. "It's all up to Michael now."