For several years, the Professional Hockey Writers' Association has attempted to gain pregame access to dressing rooms, a privilege long enjoyed by baseball writers. NHL general managers have resisted strenuously, officially because opening the room would detract from the players' mental preparation.

Actually, they do not want the large number of walking wounded, and their specific ailments, to become public knowledge. So injured players are taped and treated in privacy before the game, then retreat to the off-limits trainers' room afterward to be-untaped and treated again.

Trainer Gump Embro of the Washington Capitals has had more postgame company than the media in recent weeks, as most of the Capitals are feeling the effects of a long, long season in which, as Coach Gary Green often says, they have been forced to play every game like a playoff game, with no chance to enjoy the odd no-contact floater.

The Capitals have lost 310 man-gamesto illness and injury already this year, which qualifies as a league record. If hockey players stayed away from work with the pains that keep normal folks on sick leave, the figure would certainly be doubled.

One of those who has played with painis defenseman Robert Picard, the subject of so many catcalls from galleryites who expect repeated miracles.

There is no doubt Picard has not matched last year's accomplisments, but he has played very well in recent weeks,recording three goals, 10 assists and a plus eight rating in his last 13 games, despite painful rib and shoulder injuries.

"Yeah, I'm hurting, but I can't sayanything about it," Picard said. "There are a lot of guys playing hurt in here, but nobody is going to talk about it and let the other teams know."

Rolf Edberg has spent more time riding a bicycle, after returning prematurely from a groin pull, than he has on the ice.

Edberg has posted six game-winning goals; no other Capital has more than three. Two have come in the last two games, those exciting victories over the New York Islanders and Boston.

Ryan Walter and Bengt Gustafsson the only Capitals to play all 68 games, have had ample reason to call in sick. However it will take better reasons before they do.

"I've had a lot of small things, but those little things you can always play with," said Walter, whose game armor includes girdle and knee brace.

Gustafsson has been playing despite abruised hip and the rest of his body bears considerable evidence of bruises, too. His forearms were slashed so often that Embro devised extra padding from wrist to elbow.

Others playing despite injury -- and this may be just a partial list -- include goalie Wayne Stephenson, defensemen Rick Green, Pierre Bouchard and Pat Ribble, and forwards Mike Gartner, Bob Sirois, Paul Mulvey and Alan Hangsleben.

Tonight, the Capitals go for a record fifth straight victory, against the Detroit Red Wings at Capital Centre at 7:30. Sunday night, they have a date in Boston, then they return to play Colorado Tuesday and Minnesota Friday before visiting St. Louis March 22 and Toronto March 24.

That kind of itinerary is difficult for physically battered team and the Capitals' current status, one point away from that final playoff berth, offers no opportunity for a floater. More predictable is the need to hold team meetings in the trainer's room.