For folks accustomed to life in a cellar, the fresh air of 15th place can be exhilarating. For those whose dreams are more optimistic, the borderline area of National Hockey League playoff status bears the stigma of a no-man's land.

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins donned the black and gold of the Steelers and Pirates, with the intention of joining them as champions. Considering the fact the Penguins led the Norris Division in early January, nudging ahead of Montreal, that did not seem unrealistic.

Sixteen defeats in 20 games were the grim reality that followed, however, and now the Penguins are stumbling on the fringes, unlikely to finish higher than 15th.

Coach Johnny Wilson's contract expires this year and the fans already have ideas about a successor. "We want Brooks" is the rallying cry in Civic Arena, referring to Coach Herb Brooks of the U.S. Olympic team.

The Penguins signed Olympic hero Mark Johnson and, although he has played nine games without a goal, he continues to draw noticeable cheers -- noticeable because the rest of the Penguins rate nothing but boos. Fortunately for them, there have been fewer boobirds each week -- attendance for the last three homes against Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Minnesota has averaged less than 10,000.

"I love the fans to yell at me, because then it doesn't disturb the team," Wilson said. "Of course, I can't score goals. I can't come up with spectacular saves. I can't execute. My hands are tied. I'm standing at a very bad angle when it comes to scoring goals or preventing them."

At Quebec, once considered the best of the expansion teams, fans are resigning themselves to a familiary playoff pattern -- watching the Canadiens on television. With one victory in their last eight games and a suicidal closing schedule, the Nordiques are ready for burial.

It has not been a pleasant season in Quebec City, despite that delicious first home victory over Montreal. Squabbling over dual announcements (in French and English), disputes over financing the renovation of the Coliseum (now set at $20 million for a 15,000-seat building) and grumbling over the defensive tactics of visiting teams have permeated the atmosphere of an arena in which they display the Fleur de Lis but no Canadian flag.

For a final fillip, players and Coach Jacques Demers are at war with the media. Demers has refused to speak to the press at practice, confining his remarks to 10 minutes after each game. The players, turning hard-to-get after a story about two of their number missing curfew, found themselves alone after a recent game when the media refused to interview them.

A 6-23-4 flop on the road, Quebec still owns a winning mark at home and Hartford General Manager Jack Kelley thinks he knows why.

"Bring your team into Quebec the day of the game, not before," Kelley was quoted by the Hockey News. "The hospitality, the food and everything else is just too good here. We came in Sunday for a Tuesday night game (a 9-5 loss) and it will take us three weeks to get back in shape.

The Whalers' playoff hopes are in fine shape, following that four-goal comeback to tie Montreal Wednesday. Hartford is 7-3-3 since it returned to its home base from exile in Springfield, Mass., Feb. 6.

Still, hockey fans are hockey fans, and the Hartford brand quickly turned on the Whalers Sunday when they dropped a 6-1 home-ice decision to Minnesota. Since the folks were promised no more than a playoff spot, a fairly steep obligation for a team rated near the bottom in October, they really have no cause to say boo.

"Every game is a life-and-death battle from here to the end," said Coach Don Blackburn. "You can go from 13th to 18th in about two games if you don't win, or vice versa if you do win. That's how tightly packed it is."

The roller coaster is in working order in Toronto, where the season has been compared to a soap opera. The Leafs had dropped four in a row before Winnipeg came to town and restored them to health Wednesday.

Toronto has been through it all this year, beginning with the sudden death of assistant general manager John McLellan. Then a group of players pinned a picture of GM Punch Imlach to the wall of a downtown bar and enjoyed a dart game.

Not coincidentally, there was a sudden dispersal of talent, with Lanny McDonald, Joel Quenneville, Tiger Williams, Dave Hutchison and Walt McKechnie heading elsewhere. Then, Coach Floyd Smith was seriously injured in an automobile accident.

Perhaps the strangest part of the season has been the silence of owner Harold Ballard, who has done little more than promise the fans a Stanley Cup in 1981. Imlach has made the changes, converting the Leafs from a slogging bunch of goons to a crowd-pleasing, fast-skating club.

Imlach has assumed the coaching reins, too, and, in another odd twist, he will coach the Toronto Old-Timers in Sunday's soldout duel with their Montreal counterparts. Fans are wondering whether he will come back with another recruit, because Carl Brewer was plucked from the Old-Timers' lineup earlier.

Life is slightly brighter in Los Angeles now that Marcel Dionne has taken a more active interest in the club's management. A few weeks ago, Dionne blasted General Manager George Maguire for failing to make a deal, complaining that, "Our defense isn't big enough or physical enough to be competitive in this league."

So Maguire went out and obtained defenseman Jerry Korab from Buffalo, along with hard-working winger Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis from the New York Islanders.

"They have told me to keep the family together, but the family wasn't pulling together, so I had to think about getting a new family," Maguire said.

What the Kings, who have won only two of their last 12 games, really need is a new goaltender, after Maguire boosted the confidence of his present crew by saying they "couldn't stop a beachball."

Edmonton obtained a new goalie, Ron Low, but he probably arrived too late to help the Oilers into a playoff spot. Nevertheless, excitement is high, reported ex-Capital Bryan Watson, the assistant to Edmonton's vice presidents.

"Our guys are excited, both about the playoffs and (Wayne) Gretzky's shot at the scoring title," Watson said. "But it's tough. We may have waited too long for a goaltender and we've had trouble finding a left wing for Gretzky."

Brett Callighen, who had teamed with Gretzky and B. J. MacDonald, suffered a serious injury to his left eye Feb. 24 when he was struck by the stick of Boston's Brad McCrimmom. There is still blood behind the eye and Callighen's vision is impaired, so he is not likely to play again this season, even if the Oilers should manage a miracle finish and reach the playoffs.

The Vancouver Canucks, with all but one remaining game at home, are paper shoo-ins for another chance to win a playoff series, something they have never accomplished. But their record indicates that home ice is no guarantee of success, either.

The Canucks, who have beaten Philadelphia, Montreal, Atlanta and Minnesota, among others, on the road, are only 11-14-8 at Pacific Coliseum.

"I don't know what it is about this team, but unless we're mad at somebody, we let a period and sometimes two slide by without doing anything," said Coach Harry Neale.

So the Canucks, led by Williams, Harold Snepsts and Glen Hanlon, the fighting goalie, are making certain they come out mad, to the extent of challenging Philadelphia for the penalty championship.

"My ambition is to help a team to the Stanley Cup and catch a 10-pound trout," said Hanlon, whose penalty total has reached 43 minutes.

Barring unexpected upheaval, the stretch battle for 16th place will center on Washington, never a playoff team, and Detroit, whose 1978 appearance was cherished as the only one since 1970. The Wings are playing so poorly, 7-12-2, at the new Joe Louis Arena that a recent sign proclaimed, "Recall Joe Louis Arena -- Olympia forever."

There were complaints about ticket prices at Joe Louis and a club spokesman was moved to say, "Our ticket prices are below average." To which a media critic replied, "So is the team's performance."

Unable to make a propitious trade before the March 11 deadline, the Wings instead hired former Buffalo Coach Marcel Pronovost as a special tutor for the defensemen.

"It took me a little while to realize that we should have somebody else," said General Manager Ted Lindsay. "It wouldn't surprise me if in another year or so we end up with another person. Who knows? It might be a psychiatrist or a psychologist."

That might be the new trend for struggling hockey teams. In Washington, where the Capitals carry a seven-game unbeaten streak into tonight's 8 o'clock contest against Minnesota and Olympic phenom Steve Christoff, coach-psychologist Gary Green has made it fashionable to proclaim, "We're No. 15." Nowhere else is 15 or 16 considered such a desirable number.