For a few hours today, the Washington Capitals flirted with disaster. Then the sun came up and hope was reborn.

A physician in Chicago examined X-rays of Mike Gartner's left heel early this morning and thought he detected a hairline fracture.

Gartner was flow to Washington, however, and team physician Pat Palumbo abandoned a meeting in New York to meet him. After an extensive examination, Palumbo said the heel was merely bruised.

It is a painful bruise, however, with the heel swollen and tender, so the team's leading goal scorer probably will not be available for Friday's game here against the Flames. But a fracture would have been close to a death blow to a team already burdened by an unbelievable succession of injuries.

"I don't know what we'll do if Gartner's out," Coach Gary Green said after hearing the diagnosis in Chicago. "Truthfully, you just don't replace a guy like that."

With high-scoring Guy Charron lost for the season and Dennis Maruk's return a month away at best, the Capitals already had seen their ability to score severely diminished.

There was another serious blow Wednesday night during the 5-2 loss to Chicago, as left wing Leif Svensson's left shoulder was dislocated. He probably will miss the rest of the regular season.

Svensson was knocked off balance by the Hawk's Doug Wilson, then was checked by Ted Bulley. Svensson landed hard, rolled over and knew immediately that he had a disabling injury.

Gartner was dumped by Bob Murray after shooting early in the second period and, skidding off balance, crashed feet first into the boards. He was able to finish the game but afterward the heel became very painful and he joined Svensson on a ride to the hospital.

Gartner is not expected to be out long and, trainer Gump Embro said, "You could see him out there tomorrow. He has a strong pain threshold and an amazing body. It's the kind of injury that bothers you more to walk than to skate and, knowing him, it won't be long."

"We still have an unreal situation with the injuries here," said General Manager Max McNab. "Last night was as low as I've felt in four years. We'll just have to rise above it."

Friday's game (WDCA-TV-20, 8 p.m.) is the Capitals' 50th of the season and already they have amassed the incredible total of 214 man games lost through sickness and injury.

The affliction has spread to the Hershey farm club where the missing-persons list presently includes defensemen Jay Johnston, Greg Theburge, Ray McKay, Mike Hayworth, and Pete Scamurra, plus fowards Eddy Godin and Greg Polis.

The injury list is just one reason why Green will not ask his club to play the physical game he prefers against the Flames Friday night. Others include the potent Atlanta power play, which has clicked 17 times in its last 40 opportunities, and the size of the Flames' forwards, a group that includes Eric Vail (6-2 and 210), Ken Houston (6-2 and 207) and Willi Plett (6-3 and 205).

"The big guys like Plett and Houston have been pretty quiet this year," Green said, "and we'll try to let them sleep. It would not be to our advantage to get physical with them.

"We will try to put pressure on their defensemen, because they like to handle the puck. We play best then we're all over the other team's defense and the fact that they have people like the rookie, (Paul) Reinhardt, who don't like to give us the puck, makes it imperative for us to get on them.

"We may have to designate a third man to play back, while the other two forwards chase, instead of making it optional which two go in deep. We have to contain them at our blue line, because they rarely dump and chase, and if we don't have three men lined up, they'll be getting a lot of three-on-two breaks.

"I like to match lines, but Al MacNeil makes it tough to do and besides Atlanta has three pretty well-balanced lines."

The Flames have Garry Unger centering Vail and Plett, Ivan Boldirev between Darcy Rota and Houston, and Guy Chouinard working with all-star Kent Nilsson and Bob McMillian. Throw in Bill Clement and Jean Pronovost as penalty killers and the wonder is that the Flames are a game below .500.