Defenseman Rick Smith will return to the Washington Capitals' lineup for Saturday's televised (WDCA-TV-20) at 9 p.m.) contest here against the Minnesota North Stars. Smith will be playing with a protective splint on his right index finger, which was broken Dec. 6.

There is a possibility that defenseman Pat Ribble, who suffered strained ligaments in his right knee Dec. 20, will be ready for the North Stars. All comers are welcome, because the Capitals' defense has come undone during the club's current four-game losing streak.

With Smith, Ribble, Paul MacKinnon, Pierre Bouchard and Yvon Labre out of the lineup, the Capitals have been forced to use a defense composed of overworked Rick Green, who has been minus 14 in the last seven games and has played the last two with a stomach disorder and a cracked right index finger; sometimes winger Alan Hangsleben and three rookies -- Howard Walker, Darren Veitch and Jim McTaggart.

Add the loss of the two regular goalies, Mike Palmateer and Wayne Stephenson, and the Capitals are in deep trouble. Throw in an abominable power play that is zero for its last 33 and has yielded three short-handed goals in two games, and trouble is a gross understatement.

"It's a matter of confidence," said Coach Gary Green. "When you've got a bad power play, it actually hurts you. You almost want to decline them and go five on five. Short-handed goals really hurt.

"And when things are going bad, sometimes guys try to do too much and wind up making mistakes. It's particularly tough on the young kids. I just hope through this period we don't lose so much confidence that we're back where we have to return to square one and start building it up again."

Confidence building was the topic tonight as General Manager Mac McNab arrived here and he and Green held meetings with some of the players who have been struggling.

Smith's return has to help. He was a solid performer during the nine games he played for Washington before he was injured. With Smith in the lineup, the club lost only once, posting a 5-1-3 record.

Refugees from the bulky disabled list promise the only help for the team in the near future. The Hershey farm has been reduced to the bare minimum and McNab is unlikely to make a deal from the club's current state of weakness.

Torrie Robertson, grabbed early Thursday by the Caps in an emergency move, was returned to his junior team in Victoria today.

"In this situation, I guess it's normal for a coach to scream at the GM to get him some players," Gary Green said. "But there are only three ways to get players -- by trade, by purchase and by giving draft choices.

"To trade now, we'd have to give up someone as good as we'd be getting. You don't win at that. And you don't buy good ones anymore. As for draft choices, to get a good player you have to give up a No. 1.

"We've been in that situation before and I panicked and wanted to do it, but I'm glad we didn't. We just have to hang in there with what we've got and hope we get enough guys back to turn things around."

The current sad stretch began in Minnesota a week ago with a 3-0 beating. During the four-game slide, the Capitals have been outscored, 23-4, although there was a ray of hope in the shot figures during Thursday's 6-0 loss in Calgary, as the Capitals had a 40-32 edge but could not get anything past unbeaten Rejean Lemelin.

Washington goalie Rollie Boutin, making his first NHL start of the season, stopped a penalty shot by Calgary's Kent Nilsson and a potful of breakaways, but the shaky defense was too much to overcome.