Goalie Tony Esposito of the Chicago Black Hawks usually opens his mouth only to eat. On New Year's Eve, however, after a defeat that followed a grueling two-hour practice, Esposito exercised his vocal cords in a lengthy meeting with Coach Keith Magnuson and the results would be worth an A in any speech course.

The Hawks, who will visit Capital Centre tonight at 7:30, have 14 victories, two defeats and three ties since Jan. 3, climbing from 17th place to ninth in the NHL. Esposito has played every game, permitting only 52 goals and reducing his goals-against average from 4:34 to 3.70.

"I told him (Magnuson) he was trying to be a touch guy as a coach and it wasn't working," Esposito told Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune. "Guys didn't want to be around the rink. I told him if he eased up it would have a positive effect because basically everybody liked him and was on his side.

"So he eased up -- not just a little but a lot -- and we haven't played a bad game for him since. I think the reason we're winning is because we've become one happy unit, 18 skaters, two goalies and two coaches, and we're pulling together as a team."

Yesterday Coach Gary Green of the Washington Capitals conducted a wearying workout of almost two hours at Fort Dupont, then held on-ice discussions with several players. It was almost as if Green was hoping goalie Mike Palmateer would come by and tell him to ease up, so the Capitals could take off on a 14-2-3 spree.

Actually, Green would settle for a .500 record the rest of the way. He hopes that Palmateer, who will return to action tonight, will play most of the remaining 23 games and provide the same leadership and superb play that Esposito had furnished Chicago. The Capitals' five-game winless streak, complied exclusively on the road, has left 12th place Washington with 52 points, nearly equidistant from Vancouver in 11th and Detroit in 17th.

It might be time to push the panic button. If the Capitals finish 17th or below and out of the playoffs a seventh straight year it could crush the fragile relationship that exists between the Capitals and their oft-burned fans. Green is trying to avoid a feeling of panic, figuring the pressure is already evident.

"I think they (the players) feel the pressure," Green said. "Why shouldn't they? We all do. It's a touch race. But we have a subtle feeling of confidence that wasn't there last year. It's the influence of Palmy being ready to go and the guys who have been there before, Hound (Bob Kelly), Vervy (Dennis Ververgaert), Prony (Jean Pronovost) and Butch (Pierre Bouchard).

"There was more of a panic feeling last year. Now we know there is pressure, but we are confident that if the guys remain healthy we can play .500 hockey over the last 23 games. We've done it all year when the guys are healthy. As much as we wanted to do better on the last road trip, we can still look back over the last 15 games, see we've played .500 )6-6-3) and know we've capable of maintaining it."

Palmateer, who bruised his left hand in Buffalo Thursday, said: "I'm not totally 100 percent, but I'm ready to play." In his last full game, despite a heavily taped left ankle, he inspired the Capitals to an unexpected tie in Los Angeles. . . Center Guy Charron and defenseman Howard Walker will be back in the lineup tonight.Charron dislocated a shoulder Feb. 5. Walker bruised his spleen Feb. 3. . . Yvon Labre's knee is bothering him again and he will not dress. . . Chicago is missing its leading scorer, Tom Lysiak, who is in traction with a sprained back.Defenseman Dave Hutchison is out with a broken finger. . .Winger Errol Rausse, who skated with the Capitals in practice this week, has returned to Hershey.