A week ago, when the Washington Capitals belonged to the NHL's Sweet 16, Coach Gary Green expressed the wish that the playoff struggle not be prolonged to the team's last game.

Like so many other dreams connected with the Capitals, this one did not come to pass. When the Capitals face the Atlanta Flames at 7:30 tonight at Capital Centre, the entire season will hang in the balance.

If the scales of justice were employed to determine a winner, the Capitals would have no trouble. In a way, it is miraculous that his team could come so close, after suffering an NHL record 352 man-games lost through injury and having so many others play for the last month despite painful bumps and bruises.

Even winning their last game is no assurance that the Capitals will gain playoffs status. They must wait around long after the fans' postgame photo session to determine their fate, long distance from Los Angeles. If Vancouver should tie or defeats the Kings, the Capital season would be over. If L.A. wins, the Capitals would earn that playoff berth by defeating Atlanta.

General Manager Max McNab plans to set up an amplified speaker hookup in his office tonight so that he and other club officials can listen to the Canucks' game, which begins at 11 p.m. He was working yesterday on the possibility of extending the broadcast to the entire Centre so that the fans could participate in the settling of the team's future.

"It's important for us and it's important for L.A. too," McNab said. "If they lose and Pittsburgh and Toronto win, they could wind up playing Boston, and I'm sure they don't want that."

The Capitals held a light workout at Fort Dupont yesterday, with many of the lame opting for treatment instead. Among those who chose trainer Gump Embro's tender mercies were Robert Picard, Rick Green, Rolf Edberg, Bengt Gustafsson and Bob Sirois.

"There are some who are hurting and they did not play to full capacity in Philadelphia," McNab said."We're sure they'll snap back for the finale."

The ride back from Philadelphia early yesterday morning was a quiet one. The bus stopped a couple of times while McNab called Vancouver to check out the Canucks' game with Los Angeles. There was early hope as the Kings grabbed a 2-1 lead, but outside the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel the bad news was relayed that Vancouver had won and jumped over Washington and Edmonton into 15th place.

For 35 minutes Thursday, it appeared that the Capitals would retain control of their own destiny, as they built a 2-0 lead over the Flyers. Reg Leach's hat trick and a goal by Jim Watson pulled it out for Philadelphia, however, 4-2.

There were many comments from both sides over the work of referee Alf Lejeune, particularly his long visit to the penalty timekeeper following a free-for-all, while players from both teams continued to incite further violence.

"Lejeune was out of the play so long, without ordering players out or issuing warnings, that it invited trouble," McNab said. "Mike Gartner's misconduct was ridiculous. If he knows (Jack) McIlhargey is gone for the game, he will conduct himself accordingly. He would have gone right to the box if McIlhargey was calmed down.

"There were only three games in the league last night and it was ridiculous, considering the importance of the game, not to have one of the top five officials there, somebody the players respect. We didn't get the worst of the penalties, but the whole atmosphere was bad."

When Picard declined to accept McIlhargey's invitation to fight, Gartner swung instead and sat in the box for 15 minutes, while the Flyers scored three times. McNab was asked whether he preferred Picard's restraint or Gartner's aggressiveness.

"It depends on your immediate instincts," McNab said. "With most people it's an instantaneous thing. If you could depend on the officials, it would be another thing. If Picard fights, McIlhargey should get more for starting it, but Pic doesn't fight and you get the same 5-2 [minute] penalties you should have gotten if he did fight back."

Picard later was knocked unconscious by a Bob Dailey elbow, but there was no penalty, because the officials did not see what was a clearly blatant foul.

The antithesis of NHL goonery will be represented at the Centre tonight, when U.S. Olympic hero Jim Craig visits with the Flames. His playing status is questionable, with the result of last night's home game against the New York Islanders a factor. Naturally, Gary Green was there watching.