In the gloom created by the Capitals' 5-2 exhibition loss to the New England Whalers Saturday night, Washington Coach Tom McVic found consolation: "I know we can't be that bad."

There was not denying that the Capitals were awful, however. General Manager Max McNab passed up a visit to the rookie game with the New York Rangers and instead spent his Sunday watching the Capitals' so-called regulars in a two-hour morning workout and a 90-minute afternoon scrimmage.

From the results, he might have been better off praying. It is noteworthy that McVie only once lost his termper, stopping to shout, "This is a passing drill and your passes are . . . so why don't you work at it? Maybe you'll be a little better hockey club."

Later, a player skating down the left side dribbled the puck into McVie's skates, at that moment a player across the ice was seen exhibiting a prolonged yawn. If ever, McVie had an "veuse for justificable homicide, it was then but instead he merely stopped the exercise and invited the team to skate in a leisurely pattern for a few minutes.

"I could have put the pucks away and had them do stops and starts." McVie said. "I've played for coaches who would have done that. But what good would that do? We've got the hest-conditioned team in North America. They could do stops and starts all day. But I just let them skate around easy and think it over. Then we got back to working on skills. That's what we need."

Conditioning was no factor Saturday, as the ancient Whalers got goals from Gordie Howe, 50, and John McKenzie, 40, while outshooting the Capitals, 27-13.

"If we play like that, we won't win one period in the NHL," said McVie, who lectured the team before the morning workout. "It's awful when men who shouldn't be ready to play for two weeks beat you all over the ice. Fundamently, we just played brutal. I was never more sure of winning a game since I came here.

"Now at least we can stop running around patting ourselves on the back. It sure as hell brought me back to earty. When a fair player plays fair every night. I'm satisfied. But the peaks and valleys of some of these buys are hopelss. I know we only lost on game and the end of the world didn't come. Still, losing like that burns me.

"That's the bad news - we were terrible. But there is good news. We have two weeks to go in training camp. It would be a lot worse if we were breaking camp today."

McNab indicated that when the club does break camp, it will have some new faces in the lineup.

"The whole camp is geared to guys playing themselves off. McNab said. "Those aren't necessarily the people who will be starting. Obviously, we can't start with the club. From the five rookie games, we will evaluate the guys who will play themselves on.

"The game was a disappointment. They're a set club, a good solid hockey club, but we didn't expect it to go that bad. This was our basic club from last year, and there wasn't the bite there that we anticipated.We had a couple of horrendous defensive booboos."

Nobody can imaging the the Capitals repeating that performance. But McVie had a closing thought.

"We had some terrible times last year," he said, "but it's like a woman who has a baby, you forget the pain. When I walked out of here last night. I started thinking of last year and I thought. "God couldn't possible put us through that again."