While General Manager Max McNab reconnoiters in the West, grading possible reinforcements for next season, the rest of the Washington Capitals continue their rear-guard operation with a five-game home stand opening tonight at 7:30 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There was minimal enthusiasm during yesterday's practice at Fort Dupont, little desire for extra work after Coach Tom McVie called an early halt to formal proceedings. There was none of the usual repartee between players, merely a desire to leave the place as quickly as possible.

How could one foresee anything else from a team that embarked on the season so hopefully in September, yet is wallowing in the muck of 12-42-12 record?

Still, as the Capitals proved a week ago in Montreal, no hockey player just sits on his heels and permits an opponent to trample him. The Capitals can be expected to reach deep into their reservoir of self esteem for tonight's engagement with Darryl Sittler, Dan Maloney and cohorts.

When Toronto Coach Roger Neilson follows his customary pregame practice of writing the respective lineups on a blackboard, matching player with player, he will undoubtedly couple Sittler's name will that of Ron Lalanda, the cheeking specialist who bears such a heavy burden when Washington opposes a team with an outstanding center.

McVie has little enough in his favor, but one advantage on his ice is the opportunity to make the last line change.That virtually guarantees that a Sittler appearance will bring Lalonde over the boards.

"Up in their rink, you can't do anything about it," McVie said. "But here you can put the people you want on them. We'll go with a checking line and certainly you help your chances of winning if you shut that (Shittler) line down."

McVie wouldn't name his three checkers for Sittler, Tiger Williams and Lanny McDonald, preferring to let Neilson find out on the game's first matchup. Lalonde's role, however, as Washington's best defensive player, is an obvious one.

Sittler has recorded 42 goals and 103 points this year, and he is the key to Toronto's impressive 38-19-10 record.

"He's either setting up his wings for goals or scoring the winning goals," Lalonda said. "He's the best all-round center in the league as far as I'm concerned. He's a team player, he's unselfish with the puck and he makes things happen. I know the system Roger Neilson plays, and Sittler fits it perfectly."

Lalonde player junior hockey under Neilson at Peterborough and he is, like his old teacher, alert to the nauances of the game. If anyone is aware of Sittler's preferences, it is Lalonde, although obviously he would need a lasso to take full advantage of that knowledge.

"I've watched replays when they've scored against us, to see where he's positioned himself," Laonde said. "He's a smart hockey player. He knows where to go and when to go. It's a challenge trying to stop him and I'm kind of looking forward to it."

Maloney will be playing his first game for the Leafs, after being obtained from Detroit, and McVie noted that, "He's an intimidating type and they figure to be pretty tough with Maloney and Tiger Williams on the left side."

This has not been a pleasant season for slugger Maloney, who has scored only 16 goals. The Red Wings' team captain, he found himself booed by Detroit fans for his mediocre play. Even his fistic reputation has been soiled, as he was clearly decisioned Thursday night by Detroit's Terry O'Reilly.

John McLellan, the Leaf's assistant general manager, missed that encounter, but he was a frequent visitor to the Detroit press box on previous occasions. The Leafs made no secret of their desire to add Maloney's aggressiveness to their lineup and they finally achieved it - at the exorbitant cost of winger Errol Thompson, two No. 1 draft picks and two No. selections.

"I guess they know what they want," McVie said.