They melted the ice at Capital Centre yesterday and consigned to storage 18,000 painter's caps that were to have been distributed at Saturday's first-ever home playoff game. For the seventh straight season, the Washington Capitals are waiting until next year.

What next year will bring is the subject of much conjecture, since there have been reports that owner Abe Pollin is actively seeking to sell the hockey club. Pollin did nothing to dispell that possibility yesterday when he was unavailable to the media and said that he would stay that way no matter how long the reporter waited at the foot of the stairway to his office.

General Manager Max McNab and Coach Gary Green looked toward a somewhat uncertain future, because they had not heard from Pollin since Toronto edged the Capitals out of the National Hockey League's final playoff berth Sunday night. Each has two years remaining on his contract, the result of extensions granted by Pollin last summer.

"In the structure of our business, whether you get 72 points or 70 makes such a dramatic difference in the outlook of the franchise, it's scary," MaNab said. "Every guy on our club can look back to a game where he could have broken a tie or created a tie. It makes for a nightmarish summer.

"Hockey has been my life, maybe too much, and I've been lucky to have a good wife to raise the kids. They disbar lawyers or doctors if they don't work at their trade, but I'm not afraid of the future in that regard. It's frustrating and not the happiest time of our life because of the problems.

"We make reasonable progress and a hidden hand rises up to smite us occasionally. I'll never walk away from this position. I can honestly say we've tried to take advantage of every opportunity where talent is concerned."

McNab said Pollin never had issued an ultimatum with regard to the team making the playoffs.

"Mr. Pollin does not operate in that manner; he gives encouragement rather than ultimatums," McNab said. "I haven't talked to him, but I know he'll be as devastated as we all are. No question, we were mentally and budgetwise geared to making the playoffs."

Green seemed shattered Sunday night after Toronto's victory cost the Capitals the playoff berth he had guaranteed in February, even though the team topped by one the 69 points he had established as a goal. Yesterday, though, he was his normal analytical self, already looking ahead to next fall.

"Last night I felt a wet dishrag," Green said. "This morning I lay there and thought about it, and I realized nothing will change the past. If I moped around today and thought, 'If I'd done this' or 'maybe I should have done that,' I'd go bonkers.

"One encouraging thing, we didn't choke under pressure, and that's important to this hockey club. We showed tremendous signs under pressure, winning in Boston, in Philadelphia and that last key game (over Detroit), no matter against whom. We've been tight in the past and this time we exploded the opposite way. There were good signs that we can cope and handle pressure."

As to his future status, Green said, "As a professional hockey coach, as far as our job goes, I don't have any real idea of what other people are thinking. Sometimes I lose a little sleep, or a lot of sleep, and it popped through my mind last night and during January and February.

"I don't have a wealth of experience, but I know you can't let that dominate your thinking. You have to spend your time thinking about better ways to do your job, not about losing it."

For his past, McNab fully endorsed Green, saying, "He has an absorbing type of mind and he learns from experience and mistakes. He wants to be the best. I hate to see a 27-year-old coach in two years become 47. This is two years in a row we've gone down to the last game, and that doesn't seem possible. Gary is an eternal optimist and I'd hate to see that shattered."

McNab sees an offensive defenseman and a high-scoring left wing as the team's key requirements for next year, assuming Mike Palmateer can handle the bulk of the goaltending.

"Ideally, I'd like to get a 60- or 70- point defenseman, who can do it both ways and give us a little more imaginative movement back there," McNab said. "With two 50 goalers playing on different lines, we have a pretty good start up front, but overall we could use a little more offense. A left wing (Mike) Gartner would be nice."

Right wing Gartner, 48 goals, and center Dennis Maruk, 50, will be occupying a lot of negotiator Peter O'Malley's time, because both will be entering the option years of their contracts, along with Bengt Gustafsson, a forward of limitless potential if he can escape the injury bug.

Decisions must be made on several players who are completing their contractual obligations, including right wing Mark Lofthouse, the American League scoring champion; goalie Gary Inness and Hershey forwards Eddy Godin, Archie Henderson and Claude Noel.

Defenseman Rick Smith announced his retirement, watching his last game from a sky suite, but McNab said, "I don't like to see anymore make a decision in the heat of the moment. It has been a disappointing, frustrating year for him, but there were moments where he added quite a bit."

Gartner, Maruk, defenseman Rick Green and captain Ryan Walter left yesterday for Sweden, where they will play for Canada in the World Ice Hockey Championships. Palmateer was invited but declined. He will undergo arthroscopy on his right knee and probably will need minor surgery, Gustafsson will play for Sweden in the tournament.

Inness and defenseman Darren Veitch, both called up by the Capitals under emergency conditions, returned to Hershey, which begins defense of the Calder Cup Wednesday against New Haven.