The Washington Capitals' practice suddenly halted and every player froze yesterday, as Coach Gary Green interrupted a zone-clearing drill at Capital Centre to impress the harsh realities of 17th-place life upon his team.

"Are you all sleeping out here?" Green raged, slamming his stick on the ice. "If we don't win the next three games, you can sleep all summer. I'm not looking forward to a long summer, are you?

"You say you want to be in the playoffs, but talk is cheap. You've got to show you want it. This practice means something today."

Asked later whether his outbreak of temper was connected with the nagging wait for the club's playoff fate to be decided. Green smiled and allowed as how it was more attuned to the 85-degree weather outside and its effects on concentration in a hockey rink.

"For sure, emotionally you'd like to get right at it, play the games and get the answers," Green said. "But nothing is so valuable to you at this stage of the season as health and rest. That's almost got to be a priority. When we're rested and healthy, we're a lot different hockey club.

"We played well going three games in four nights against St. Louis, Montreal and Philadelphia after getting some rest and I think we can do just as well this week once we've had a chance to restore our energy. I just want the team to realize we don't have another week to fall back on. We have to do it this week, and if we win all three, I'm sure we'll make it in."

The Capitals, who trail Toronto by one point for the 16th and final playoff berth, do not control their own destiny. They could win in Boston Thursday, on Long Island Saturday and at the Centre Sunday against Detroit, and still be left on the outside. Green, however, thinks his team is due for a few breaks, and he does not believe that Toronto's defense, without Borje Salming, can hold up.

The Leafs entertain Chicago tonight and Quebec Saturday, then finish their season Sunday at Quebec City. They seemed dead after losing in Pittsburgh a week ago, but rallied to win in Boston and then thumped Calgary at home, 9-5.

"Boston kept hitting posts right until the last seconds and people who saw Saturday's game tell me Calgary was just awful," Green said. "There are a lot of possibilities but I don't see how the Toronto defense can possibly go through that stretch without at least one bad night. And if Toronto stubs its toes against Chicago, it's going to be playing a really hot team.

"I know we've never won in Boston, but we'd never won in Philadelphia before this season, either, and we won there twice. Boston is no better a team and the Garden is no tougher a building.

"Actually, in the last 10 days it doesn't matter who you play. It's who wants it most and who is most ready, most rested, most mentally hungry. Experience and breaks help, too, and luck certainly is a big part of this game. I think our share is still on the way."

Center Dennis Maruk expressed the optimistic thoughts of most of the Capitals when he said, "We're not out of it at all. It's between Toronto and us and we've got to hope they lose and we win. If we can go into Philly and win, we can do the same in Boston. And if we go in and beat Boston, it will bring us back to what we had. We know we've got to win."

Maruk was not upset by the coach's harsh words during the practice session.

"This is going to be a tough game in Boston and they play a forcing game on the small rink," Maruk said. "We had to work on moving the puck today to combat that. We've got to find answers and go out and do it."

Asked if he was tired of practices after 26 weeks of drills, Ryan Walter quipped, "I wouldn't mind practicing for another four or five weeks."

Since the Capitals will be alive Saturday, no matter the results in Toronto Wednesday and Boston Thursday, WDCA-TV-20 will televise Saturday's 5 p.m. contest against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. Thursday's 7:30 game in Boston is also scheduled for TV . . . The annual team picture was taken on the Capitol steps yesterday morning, which possibly contributed to the spring-fever atmosphere at practice later . . . Assistant coach Bill Mahoney scouted the Bruins in Buffalo Monday . . . Green will pass up tonight's game in Toronto, because "even though it means a lot to us as a result and I'd like to see it, we won't be playing either team, so it's more important for me to be with our guys in Boston."