When Jim McTaggart was called up from Hershey Dec. 7, in the depth of the Washington Capitals' injury crisis, it was expected to be merely a matter of recuperation before he was back in the minors. That feeling was reinforced when he compiled a minus-eight rating in his first four games.

Almost eight weeks have passed, three defensemen have come back from the disabled list and No. 1 draft pick Darren Veitch has been demoted to Hershey, but McTaggart is still wearing a Washington uniform. He is learning, too. In the last eight games, he has been on the ice for only one opposition goal.

Of course, he also has seen a few from the penalty box.For McTaggart, in 24 games as a Capital, has served 130 penalty minutes, a figure that translated over a full season would reach 433. The record for an NHL defenseman is Steve Durbano's 370; only winger Dave Schultz, with 472, has gone higher.

Despite McTaggart's affinity for collecting penalties -- he has played only six games without one -- Coach Gary Green is impressed by the 20-year-old rookie. The improvement in defensive skills is one reason; McTaggart's courage rates even higher.

"He's a tough kid; he comes to play and he's got a pile of meanness in his body," Green said. "It's nice to have a tough guy playing agressively like that, as well as playing good enough hockey that you're not afraid to put him out on a regular shift.

"He's gotten some bad penalties, but when you get in a fight, just breaking in and fighting the toughest guys in the league, you don't pause to think. It's a fight for survival."

Among McTaggart's penalties are three unsportsmanlike-conduct minors for pulling hair while yanking helmets off opponents, as well as a match penalty he received Thursday night for punching Vancouver's Tiger Williams while his right hand was taped to protect a pulled tendon.

The tape violation brought McTaggart a rookie's nightmare yesterday. He received a phone call from Brian O'neill, NHL executive vice president in charge of discipline.

"I told him Williams' cut was not caused by the tape, that the tape was soft and it wasn't covering my knuckles," McTaggart said. "I only had one layer on my hand and besides I didn't get a real good shot in. Mr. O'Neill said he would take no further action at this time."

McTaggart took some karate lessons when he was 12 and 13, but he was not one of those kids who grows up proving he's king of the hill. He hardly remembers using his fists until he moved into the wild Western Hockey League.

"When you're a rookie in that league, they're testing you all the time," McTaggart said. "You have to be able to fight or they'll run you right out. Certain situations have been overexaggerated about the league, but there are a lot of goofy guys out west.

"It's not a lot different in the NHL, as far as that goes. When you're a rookie, they'll always test you. I don't go into a game looking for a fight and I don't take pride in fighting, but being a rookie sometimes you have to do certain things.

"Whether you win or lose means nothing. It's whether you show up for it. And who wins doesn't have any bearing on how tough you are. The biggest, toughest guy is going to get caught sometime. At the drop of a hat, anything can happen, somebody else will move in and break you up before you can even things up."

That was how the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder lost his only unofficial boxing decision in the NHL. The New York Islanders' Garry Howatt landed a shot and the two were separated before McTaggart could retaliate. He is not losing any sleep over it, however. If he is kept awake at night, the cause is thoughts of possible demotion.

"I think about it constantly," McTaggart said. "You never know. The Caps have a lot of depth and who's best at the time will be playing. A lot of guys who were playing are sitting out, too, and guys go up and down. I still take one day at a time."

When the latest convalescent, Pierre Bouchard, returned to action this week, McTaggart was teamed with him and moved to the right side, although he is a left-handed shot. It was just one more problem he has faced and seemingly, overcome.

"The biggest thing is just to remember your defensive duties," McTaggart said. "It is an adjustment and it's a definite handicap when the puck comes around the boards, because you have to take it on your backhand. Defensively, you have to adjust and move to the opposite side. I guess it's just a matter of concentration."

Some critics think he should concentrate on the possible consequences of some of his fighting techniques, but McTaggart, like Green, feels that is easier said than done.

"It's hard, because when you're in a fight, you never really think what you're doing," McTaggart said. "Sometimes you have a choice -- pull a helmet off or get smacked in the face. What are you going to do?"

When McTaggart is fighting, the answer is obvious. Watch from the press box.

Dave Parro, with his outstanding 2.43 goals-against average, will guard the Capitals' net tonight in Pittsburgh (WDCA-TV-20 at 8 p.m.) . . . Four Capitals -- Ryan Walter, Bengt Gustafsson, Rick Green and Wes Jarvis -- missed practice yesterday while receiving treatment for various ailments. All are expected to be ready tonight . . . Although the Capitals are carrying three extra players, they plan no squad cuts before Monday's departure on a five-game road trip. "We're fortunate to have a couple of extra guys; it's a luxury," Green said. "We'll rotate players depending on who we're playing."