Goalie Wayne Stephenson shaved off his beard Friday night. It had become, like the Capitals' current plight, a ticklish situation.

The 6-2 home-ice loss to Pittsburgh that preceded Stephenson's defoliation extended the Capital losing streak to four. The home stand that was to provide the padding for a lengthy postholiday road trip instead has become a disaster and, unless there is a turnabout in tonight's 7 o'clock contest against woeful Detroit at Capital Centre, it could be another long winter.

Complicating the task are more injuries. Defenseman Pierre Bouchard slightly tore the medial collateral ligament of his left knee and will be outt of action at least two weeks. He will be reexamined Monday to determine the extent of the injury. Goalie Mike Palmateer took a shot just above the knee that left a bad bruise and figures to be on the bench for a few days.

Rick Green and Yvon Labre came off the disabled list Friday and were expected to give the Capitals a psychological lift. It never materialized, as Pittsburgh scored twice in the first six minutes, Palmateer was unable to continue and Penguin goalie Rob Holland made some big saves.

"Green and Yvon were off in their timing," said Coach Gary Green. "I'm not going to crucify them. We haven't had time to even scrimmage them with this schedule."

Tonight's game will be the sixth for the Capitals in nine days. They were battered physically be the four-in-five assignment that followed home games against Colorado and Vancouver with next-night visits to Boston and New York.

"With the tempo of the game and the hitting, I think the league has to take a long look at four-in-fives," said General Manager Max McNab. "It's an awful strain. Just as they don't permit three-in-threes, I think they have to do the same with four-in-fives."

Green conceded, however, that it was not just bruised players such as Ryan Walter and Pat Ribble and flubitten Jean Pronovost who failed to measure up to their usual standard of play. For the first time, he had harsh words for some nonproducers.

"We would like to get something set, but there are certain guys out there who haven't been injured and haven't been performing well," the coach said. "We spent a great amount of time in the last 48 hours to try to be prepared and try to be reorganized.

"We tried to give better protection to the corner areas and the net areas. But when you overload some areas, you leave other areas. And it just takes one player not doing his job to throw everyone off. As soon as it takes two men to do one man's job, there is a domino effect, and you leave a man open somewhere."

Detroit, for all its defensive faults, is a good skating team, as the Red Wings demonstrated in sweeping past the Capital defenders in that wild, 7-7 tie at Joe Louis Arena on Thanksgiving Eve. At that time Washington was playing well; now things are falling apart. Opponents have a 23-9 scoring edge over the last four games.

It seemed bad timing to ship out Darren Veitch and Howard Walker and bring up Greg Theberge on the day that the rusty Labre and Rich Green were returning to the lineup. However, Gary Green felt that Veitch and Walker were losing confidence and he feared any further deterioration of their play might leave permanent scars.

Green's optimism is scarred a bit, too, and he is concerned. Nevertheless, he expects the team to work its way out of its current state.

"Our foundation has been built on our capability for outworking the OPPOSITION," green said. "We have to get back on the right rails by making sure we do that first."