The Capitals, in the spirit of the Christmas season, presented the Pittsburgh Penguins a 5-3 victory last night at Capital Centre.

The crowd of 7,652 was less charitable. General Manager Max McNab, varied players and even postgame interviewer Jim West felt the verbal sting of frustrated fans.

Anyone who came late had to be doubly frustrated. In 9 1/2 minutes, the Penguins scored three times, inducing Washington Coach Gary Green to replace his starting goalie, Wayne Stephenson. The Caps could not catch up.

Stephenson responded by smashing his stick, throwing his gloves and then burying his head on the boards in front of the Washington bench.

"We lost it in the first period," Green said. "We dug ourselves into a hole and we had to dig ourselves out. I didn't notice the crowd getting on me. I thought the crowd was pretty good tonight. They certainly didn't waste any money watching this game. The second and third periods were pretty good hockey."

Obviously, some fans disagreed. One walked up behind McNab's seat in the press box and shouted. "Max, if you don't get a winner out there, you can kiss my season tickets goodbye."

When Paul Mulvey disputed a foolish interference penalty with Washington down, 3-0, and received an added minor for unsportsmanlike conduct, another fan shouted, "I've got a good trade, Mulvey for Lane!"

Earlier in the day, the Capitals had dealt Gord Lane, the dissident defenseman, to the New York Islanders for center Mike Kaszycki. Notified at 3 p.m., Kaszycki hurried here by private plane and even more quickly became saddled with a minus four, on the ice for all but one Pittsburgh goal.

After the game, another dissatisfied fan hovered over West and shouted, "This used to be a pretty goodshow when Marv (Brooks) did it!"

There is something about a loser that breeds disgruntlement and Washington currently owns the NHL's worst record, 5-18-5.

Tonight the Capitals try to improve that mark in St. Louis (WDCA-TV-20 at 9 p.m.) and they will leave without Finnish winger Antero Lehtonen, who sat out last night's game and will spend the next two weeks in Hershey.

There was a bright spot for the Capitals. The trio of Mulvey, center Wes Jarvis and Mike Gartner not only shackled the Penguins' high-scoring line of Rod Schutt, Greg Malone and Peter Lee, but accounted for all the Washington goals.

"That checking line has been doing a hell of a job offensively," Green said. "They had all the offense for us, not just the goals but most of the good opportunities."

Gartner scored off a Jarvis setup, after Mulvey had rammed puck carrier Randy Carlyle into the boards, to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 4-2 late in the second period.

Jarvis, who had set up Mulvey for Washington's first goal, scored early in the third period to make it 4-3 and raise the fans' hopes a bit. Gartner skated behind the net and passed out to Mulvey, who deflected the puck across the crease to Jarvis.

Two minutes later disaster struck. Tom Rowe, who was returning from that crowded disabled list, tried to circle behind his own net. Schutt stole the puck and passed out to Malone, who easily beat relief goalie Gary Inness with the crusher.

For added frustration, Gartner was sentenced for slashing Malone with 3:40 left, removing any chance of a late Washington push.

If anyone enjoyed himself, he had to be a member of that noisy Pittsburgh Penguins Fan Club. Those folks, as usual, tarnished the National Anthem with their silly chants, but at least they were smiling at the end.

The unsmiling McNab had the last word: "We sprung a leak, but we'll get 'em."