While defenseman Robert Picard practiced in New York yesterday with the National Hockey League All-Star team, the rest of the Washington Capitals fanned out to vacationlands as varied as Laurentian ski resorts (Bob Girard and Bob Sirois) and Florida Keys fishing grounds (Ryan Walter and Gord Lane).

They carried with them the bittersweet prospect that, following a dreadful lost weekend, they are likely to be vacationing again in two months time, while the NHL majority turns to playoff competition.

Following home-ice losses to Vancouver, 5-1, Saturday and Montreal, 8-4, Sunday, the Capitals are eight points removed from a possible play-off berth. Their momentum has been shattered and the remaining schedule is not favorable.

The Capitals will resume play in Colorado Feb. 15, then will face road games against three of the league's top six teams -- Montreal, the New York Rangers and Atlanta -- before returning to Capital Centre.

Those three clubs, along with Boston, the New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Chicago and Vancouver, are virtually assured playoff spots. The remaining four positions will be decided among Los Angeles (53 points), Buffalo (53), Toronto (52), Pittsburgh (50), Minnesota (49) and Washington (42).

Of the Capitals' remaining 26 games, 11 will be played against the league's top six teams. Five will be against Montreal, a team the Capitals never have beaten. Psychologically, the Caps will have a tough time after blowing that quick 3-0 lead Sunday night.

There also are single games left against the Islanders, Boston and Philadelphia, three other clubs the Capitals never have been able to conquer.

Pittsburgh, the immediate target of the Capitals, was the last team to defeat Montreal and it beat Boston in the same week. Although the Penguins can look awful on occasion, they are capable of rising to heights that are still beyond the Capitals' capabilities.

Los Angeles, with 14 home games left to Washington's 13 and Pittsburgh's 12, and with only nine games against the big six, seems destined to finish second in the Norris Division and gain an automatic qualifying spot.

That would leave the Capitals, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and either Buffalo or Toronto struggling for the two wildcard berths that will not go to also-rans in the potent Patrick Division.

Just because of the lost weekend, there is no reason for anyone to think the Capitals' fine 9-5-1 performance in January was a fluke not to be repeated. But there are some problems that retard optimism.

Goalie Gary Inness, obviously weary in those weekend games, cannot go on playing without relief. When the Capitals return, they are scheduled for seven games in 11 nights, including three back-to-back ordeals. Inness must get some help, either from backup Bernie Wolfe or from the farm.

Washington's power play, which showed some life during that recent 7-2-1 hot streak by scoring in eight straight games, is still erratic, as evidenced by a 1-for-20 performance in the last four games. There is need for a big forward to jam the crease area, even if it means moving Rick Green up from the point in extra-man situations.

Coach Danny Belisle has been around the league a couple of times now and it is imperative for him to concoct some tactical line matching, particularly on home ice. There is no excuse for failing to send a competent line out to harass the potent trio of Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Pierre Mondou, as Belisle did Sunday against a Montreal team whose overall offensive potential had been reduced by injuries and illness. Bob Girard, Rolf Edberg and Bob Sirois seem suited for such duty.

Aggressiveness is a Capital asset, but it should be tempered with common sense. Against Vancouver, Washington wasted three power-play opportunities by committing foolish fouls while blessed with an extra man.

While the lost weekend was reducing the Capitals' playoff chances, it was also trimming the opportunity to make some new fans. A two-for-one "date night" promotion lured 17,724 to Capital Centre Saturday and the spectators, many of them new to hockey, were not treated to anything that would prompt future dates at the rink. A chance to recoup Sunday disappeared with the Capitals' three-goal lead.

The Capitals are averaging 9,366 fans through their first 27 home games, a drop of 1,743 per game over the same period last year. Washington must top 10,800 a game the rest of the way to avoid the lowest home attendance in its five-year hockey history.

There is danger that hockey will be a forgotten item by the time the team returns to Capital Centre Feb. 21 to play Detroit. In 1972, owner Abe Pollin paid to show Team Canada's great series against the Soviet Union on public television, helping to build a solid foundation of hockey fans here.

That crumbling foundation could have used some repairs in the form of televising the Challenge Cup series against the Soviets this week, with the added fillip of Picard's presence.

It was not done, however, and the next taste of pro hockey for area fans will be a televised contest from Montreal Feb. 17. Off Sunday's swan dive, that does not figure to provide much of a lift.

Still, as gloomy as things have become in February, following that bright and cheery January, the Capitals' situation is 10 times more encouraging than in October and November, when they were compiling a 5-17-4 record, winning only two of their first 14 home games and speeding toward oblivion.

As Dodger fans used to say, "Wait till next year." Of course, it's best to forget what happened to Ebbets Field.