A few days ago, the major question concerning the Washington Capitals was which member of the defensive corps to push aside when Rick Green returns to action. Now, the problem is finding enough healthy bodies to suit up until Green's sprained right wrist has healed sufficiently to permit him to play.

General Manager Max McNab, with only a smidgen of facetiousness, replied to the initial question last week that "historically, we never get to make those decisions. We play who's healthy. We don't even bother to worry about it any more. We let mother nature take care of it. It always seems that anytime somebody is coming back, somebody gets hurt. But maybe our luck has really changed."

That the Capitals' luck is directly related to Joe Btfsplk's dark cloud has since been reaffirmed. Rick Smith, who had been playing solid defense since being acquired from Detroit Nov. 7, broke the index finger of his right hand during Saturday's 8-6 victory over Colorado, as he made a routine block of a shot and the puck hit the one part of the glove that was not properly reinforced.

In the same game, winger Bengt Gustafsson was pressed into emergency backline duty and suffered a dislocated left shoulder when he was cross-checked into a goal post by Colorado's Ron Delorme.

Then Pat Ribble jammed his right thumb early in the second period of Sunday's 7-3 loss at Boston and yesterday the trainers were attempting to devise a cast that would permit him to play tonight, when Vancouver visits Capital Centre for a 7:30 contest.

The top part of the thumb is sprained and it is necessary to immobilize it, while permitting movement of the lower part, in order for Ribble to grip his stick. After X rays proved negative yesterday, the thumb was placed temporarily in a splint-cast arrangement.

"It's giving me a lot of pain and it feels like it was pinched," said Ribble, who dislocated the same thumb a year ago and was out three weeks.

Paul MacKinnon and Yvon Labre already were disabled, so, besides the questionable Ribble, the Capitals' list of defenders was what Coach Gary Green referred to as "pretty skimpy": Alan Hangsleben, the knuckles on his right hand badly bruised from Sunday's fight with Stan Jonathan; veteran Pierre Bouchard, and rookies Darren Veitch, Howard Walker and Jim McTaggart.

For added, unnecessary grief, goalie Mike Palmateer still was troubled by a bruised breastbone, where he stopped a high shot Saturday.

McTaggart was called up from Hershey Sunday and performed capably but there is little more to be drained from the first-place farm club. Quebec recently recalled defensemen Terry Johnson and Dave Pichette, so the Bears are left with Greg Theberge, Jay Johnston, Mike Haworth and Quebec farmhand Lee Norwood.

McTaggart, 20 and tough, shrugged off both the strain of playing his third game in three nights and the fact that Boston's Terry O'Reilly boarded him with such force that a section of glass was knocked loose.

"I don't think he hit me that hard," McTaggart said. "I didn't even notice the glass come out. I thought the Bruins would be a lot bigger.

"The speed of the game was the big difference. You have to change your style. When the game picks up, you don't have as much time to hit somebody. I was nervous at the start, but I settled down after a while."

McTaggart's debut as a Capital came 14 months after he was first summoned from his Billings, Mont., junior team to join Washington for an exhibition in Winnipeg. He never made it that time.

"I was flying from Billings to Bismarck (N.D.) and the pilot made a U-turn on the runway with the door open," McTaggart recalled. "It broke a hinge on the door and they canceled the flight."

A guy with that kind of luck somehow was fated to be a Capital.

The driver of the bus that carried the team to Boston's Logan Airport yesterday had to be fated for that assignment, too.

"What's the good word?" trainer Gump Embro cheerily greeted the driver.

"The good word is that I only saw the last couple of minutes of your game last night," was the uncharitable reply.