The Washington Capitals relaxed in Toronto yesterday,preparing for tonight's contest with the Maple Leafs (WDCA-TV 20 at 8). General Manager Max McNab, however, was in Ann Arbor, Mich, watching the college game between Michigan and Michigan Tech.

As the Capitals enter the fourth quater of their fourth season, McNab's thoughts are centered in the future, on the June amateur draft. The team's past and present are too grim for contemplation.

At the three-quaters mark, the Capitals are 11-38-11, hopelessly out of contention for the playoff berth they coveted at the season's start. Of the last 23 games, the capitals have won only three, and they have been outscored, 96-46.

On a previous Toronto visit, Nov. 26, the Capitals rallied from a 4-0 deficit to tie the Leafs, 4-4. They haven't shown that fighting spirit recently, however,and a lead for the opposition is a virtual guarantee fo defeat. A team that averages only two goals a game has little chance to come from behind.

In 4-1 losses to Los Angeles Tuesday and Detroit Thursday, the Capitals became disenchanted after the breaks did not go their way. After their shots rattled off posts or seemed guided by radar into the goalies' pads, the Caps appeared to adopt a fatalistic approach.

"You can't stop playing with intensity just because things aren't going your way," said Coach Tom McVie. "You have to try even harder. We're not doing it."

Detroit goalie Jim Rutherford played a superb game Thursday night, blocking 29 Washington shots. He caught a point-blank blast by Mike Marson on which he admitted that "it was fortunate my glove was almost there and I didn't have to lift it very far." He was also lucky, when Bill Collins hit a post with half the net showing.

A big aid for Rutherford, though, was the Capital's inability to make a good shot. On several occassions, all they had todo was lift the puck with Rutherford down. Instead, they slid it into his pads.

"Shooting is a natural thing," said observer Ron Ullyot, coach of the Capitals' Port Huron farm teams. "You can't really teach anybody that. A good shooter just hopes to put that puck on the net."

It's obvious the Capitals have a lot of ordinary shooters. In addition, their passing has been poor, often helping the opposition to close-range shots at goalies who are never able to relax. Then, to dig themselves a little deeper, the Capitals haven't shown much hockey sense, either.

Twice in recent games a confused line change has left the Caps without a right wing for an extended period of time. In Detroit, they were a man short when the Red Wings collected the eventual winning goal.

With all these basic handicaps. Toronto does not seema likely place to begin a big turnaround. The Leafs are virtually assured of a playoff spot, but they are anxious to pile up as many points as possible to secure more favorable pairings.

The Capitals never have won a game in Toronto, they have been outscored, 50-22, while losing seven and tying two.

Toronto General Manager Jim Gregory and his asistant, John McLellan, scouted the Caps in Thursday's game in Detroit. They offered McNab sympathy. It's the one department in which the Capitals are overstocked.