It took the Washington Capitals 90 minutes to negotiate miles of stop-and-crawl traffic from their hotel to Chicago Stadium tonight. It took only nine minutes for the Black Hawks to assure that the Capitals had made the journey in vain.

Chicago built a 3-0 lead in that stretch, expanded it to 4-0 and chased goalie Gary Inness before the first period ended. They protected that margin to the finish, extending the Capitals' winless streak to seven games.

Tony Esposito, the Hawks' 36-year-old goalie, stopped 23 shots to record his 71st career shutout, tying Harry Langley for eighth place on the all-time list. It was the first time Esposito ever blanked the Capitals.

If there was any consolation for the Capitals, it came from the second straight strong performance by goalie Wayne Stephenson. A hero in Tuesday's 3-3 tie at Colorado, Stephenson replaced Inness with 2:54 remaining in the first period and blocked all 29 shots that came his way.

Playing its fifth game in seven nights since Gary Green took over as coach, the Capitals never were able to challenge the swift-skating, hard-checking Black Hawks, Rich Preston, J. P. Bordeleau and Stan Mikita beat Inness in those first minutes as the Hawks swept around the slog-footed vistors.

When Preston connected again, for his eighth goal, Green yanked Inness. It was particularly depressing for General Manager Max McNab, who coveted Preston during the winger's World Hockey Association years and then saw him choose Chicago when his Winnipeg contract expired in July.

The whole performance was depressing for Green, the guy with the positive approach who has seen injuries turn everything negative.

"It was a rough start again, four goals in the first period against a team that is pretty good at protecting a lead," Green said. "With Tony O in the nets, it's pretty hard to get yourself out of that hole."

Washington had some good opportunities, but Wes Jarvis shot into the diving Esposito on one breakaway, Mike Gartner fired wide on another and Dennis Hextall shot high at the finish of a two-on-one break.

"We're having difficulty offensively," Green said. "We haven't got enough guys out there who can put the puck in the net easily. I don't want to discuss injuries, but we have a lot of good goal-scorers in the stands."

The Capitals will have a day off on Thanksgiving only because Green was unable to obtain practice ice in Washington.

"The club is not in good condition and it's obviously going to show in the fifth game in seven nights," Green said. "It'll show on any team, but when you're not in condition it will really show."

The crowd of 9,356 enjoyed not only the rare laugher for the home team, but also the battle between the rugged Mulvey brothers, Washington's Paul and Chicago's Grant.

In the second period, Paul boarded Grant hard and Grant swung at his brother. Paul skated away, then nailed Grant with another solid check. In the third period, Grant checked Paul hard and, when Paul took a run at Grant, the Hawk ducked aside and Paul crashed into the boards.

"It meant a lot to me and I'm sure it meant a lot to him," Paul said. "We were both out there to do a job and we tried to do it. I don't think it'll ever come to draws out there, but we'll never let up on each other. I think he just swung to let me know he was there."

Defenseman Greg Theberge made his NHL debut for Washington and right wing Tony Casselato, also called up from Hershey, dressed for just this game. They were replacing defenseman Pete Scamurra, stretched ligaments in left knee, and Yvon Labre, torn cartilage in right knee. Both were injured in Colorado Tuesday.

Mark Lofthouse will be X-rayed Thursday for a possible broken bone in his left hand. It has troubled him for a week and became aggravated tonight, so that he could not close the hand around his stick.