The Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs, two teams for survival in the race for National Hockey League playoff berths, play tonight at Capital Centre at 7 p.m.

The Key contest provides another opportunity to review the big trade of last June, the blockbuster that brought goalie Mike Pamateer to Washington and sent defenseman Robert Picard and winger Tim Coulis to Toronto.

If ever a trade could be said to have hurt both teams, that one could, the way it has unfolded thus far.

The Capitals since Picard's departure have been short of puck-handling ability on the blueline and they have been unable to fill his role as left point man on the power play. Palmateer, who was to have provided steady goaltending for years to come, has been erratic and lacking in concentration, with a 4.13 goals-against mark.

The Leafs without Palmateer have received medicre netminding, with all four of the candidates for no. 1 status having yielded even more goals per game than Palmateer. Picard has had problems most of the season, making more of those bas passes that got him into trouble here. Coulis has spent the year in the minors.

This will be Picard's first game at Capital Centre since the trade. He was suffering from stretched knee ligaments on the Leaf's first visit and was also absent from the teams' meeting in Toronto, when Palmateer was so brilliant in his retun to the old hometown.

Picard, who has been teaming with Dave Farrish on the Leafs' backline, had a surge of good play when Mike Nykoluk replaced Joe Crozier as coach. Picard was so effective in that stretch he was named as the Leaf's only all-star, replacing ailing Borje Salming. However, Picard's report of recent doings, made by Telephone yesterday, sounded little different from the Capitals' struggles, which had created a 13-game winless streak.

"We haven't won in our last three games and that hurts, and we've been giving up bad goals," Picard said. "We're still playing terrible at home. The other night against Vancouver (a 5-2 defeat) was a disgrace. We're putting some pressure on ourselves, trying to help out instead of doing our own jobs well. I've been trying to do too much instead of doing my little piece and doing it right.

"The fans are on everybody, no matter what you do. They make let up if you have a good shift, but just one bad pass and they boo you. It was okay for a while, after Mike took over, but we're back to normal now. It doesn't take much to get the fans down on you."

Picard has been looking forward to his return to Capital Centre, but he said the Leafs' current plight, two points ahead of the 17th-place Capitals, made his personal thoughts secondary.

"Right now it means a lot to us to win on Sunday," Picard said. "i can forget all about it being my homecoming. It's just a big game."

Picard's report of the pressures of playing in Toronto, where the Leafs are 11-20-2 compared to a 12-13-8 road record, comes as no suprise to Gary Green, the Capitals' coach. Green acknowledges putting pressure on his charges, but he thinks they ought to be able to handle it.

"Pressure is what this game is all about," Green said. "I told them what I had to have. That's my job. I don't think there's any amount of pressure they'll get in Washington that will be one-half or three-quarters of the everyday pressure in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. If we're going to go anywhere in the playoffs, we'll have to live with that pressure."

Unless the Capital's loosen-up and play the hockey of which they are capable, they will not be in the playoffs. But Green refuses to concede defeat.

"The guys need a win to get their confidence back," Green said. "I'm convinced that if we just get one win, we can turn it around."

Palmateer has had some brilliant efforts among the tawdry this year and Green is hoping the Maple Leafs will bring out the best in him tonight. In Toronto Nov. 29, Washington won, 7-3, although outshot by 45-28, and Palmateer was a key factor in the outcome.

The No. 1 star that night, though, was Washington's Bob Kelly, who scored two goals and was an intimidating physical presence. If the Hound has anything to say about it, none of his teammates had better be dogging it tonight.

"We're supposed to be professionals. There's no reason not to be up. You've got to have pride in yourself and pride in your team. Night after night without a team point, it's pretty humiliating.

"When 16 teams out of 21 make the playoffs, it's not a good feeling to walk around with, to know you're not good enough to make the playoffs."

Washington made one change yesterday, returning winger Mark Lofthouse to Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Toronto is tied for 15th with Edmonton, both having 56 points. Washington, 17th, has 54, while Hartford's surprise victory in Buffalo Friday moved the Whalers into contention with 52.