Yvon Labre is back in town. The Washington Capital's captain and perennial most popular player is scheduled for a workout at Capital Centre this morning and, assuming there is no problem, he will play against the Vancouver Canucks in tonight's 7:30 home game.

It's appropriate that Labre's return comes on Valentine's Day, because there has been no more positive development regarding the Capitals than the love affair between the fans and the tough, 28-year-old defenseman from the Northern Ontario mining country. He has been chosen most popular every year of the club's existence.

There is a widely held theory that Labre's absence this season has contributed mightily to the team's collapse. Although no all-star, Labreled his teammates by example, giving 100 percent through a little thick and a lot of thin.

Labre's right knee was crunched in a corner at Cleveland on Oct. 15, in the second game of this season. He struggled through two more games, then underwent surgery Nov. 8 for cartilage and ligament damage.

It has not been an easy journey back. After a long stretch as a press-box spectator, Labre underwent an excruciating program of therapy, combining skating with weight sessions to rebuild the knee. Since Jan. 17, he has been playing at Hershey, additionally spending extra hours on the ice and with the universal gym.

"I didn't realize it was going to be such a long road," Labre said. "They tell you four to six weeks, but it's not just cut and dried. When I did come back, I figured there was no way I could play here. I needed that time in the minors.

"I played well down there but it's not as physical. Maybe my reputation got around, but I had lots of room. Nobody was taking any runs at me.

"The leg is not as strong as it was and it's not nearly as strong as the other leg. The only way I can compare both legs is by strength and pushing weights. With both legs, I pushed 150 pounds on the universal. With the good leg is was 80 to 90. With the bad leg it was 40 to 50. But it's coming. The first time it was 25 to 30, even less than that.

"I'll do what I can, wearing a brace. I don't expect to turn the world on fire, but I'll be doing my best. I know, though, I wouldn't want to stay here and not play. I'll get my leg in shape and if I can't do it in the time left I'll do it next year. I can play in the National Hockey League. All I have to do is work on my leg."

General Manager Max McNab will watch Labre this morning before making a decision. He sounded optimistic yesterday, however, and the Capitals, with their 10-34-11 record, could certainly use the emotional lift Labre would figure to provide.

"We won't throw him in until we're sure he's ready," McNab said. "The reports we've had and the way he's played at Hershey, getting a lot of work with just four defensemen, he should be pretty near there.

"The guy had a fantastic year for us last year. With a young club, discounting that last-weekend blowout at Montreal, he was a plus player. And he certainly sets an example for everybody. He gives us pretty good authority, and he's a hard loser."

As usual when Vancouver comes in. McNab figures to talk over some tradeable names with his opposite number, Jake Milford. Mike walton, the Canucks' leading scorer, is discontented with his part time status and was recently quoted as saying, "I'm sick and tired of not playing."

Walton would be sure of ample ice time here, if McNab can produce a package tempting enough for Milford.

The Canucks, with ever more empty seats in Pacific Coliseum, are under pressure to win. They have captured only six of their last 31 games, just one of their last 14 on the road.