The best present Santa Claus could deliver Bengt Gustafsson is a new body. The Capitals' Swedish winger was on crutches yesterday after suffering the latest in a long string of injuries that have restricted his three-year NHL career.

Gustafsson suffered pulled tendons in his left ankle in the second period of Wednesday's 7-4 loss to the Boston Bruins at Capital Centre and is expected to be out about a week. Gustafsson banged Boston's Ray Bourque against the boards, then his leg twisted underneath as Bourque fell on him.

"He was falling and I tried to get out of the way so I could get right on the puck," Gustafsson said. "But, as I was pulling away, my leg got caught under him. I was moving, but the leg wasn't.

"They tell me it is ligament trouble and something with the tendons. I don't know; there are too many big words. It doesn't feel so bad today. Maybe with some rest I'll get back soon."

Gustafsson is recognized as a player of almost unlimited potential, but frequent injuries have reduced his efficiency. He did play all 80 games in his rookie season, despite minor ailments, then last year suited up for 72 although twice dislocating his left shoulder and suffering a variety of neck, back and ankle injuries.

Gustafsson, who underwent shoulder surgery last spring, has been playing hurt since the opening game this year, but nevertheless has dressed for all but three games.

"He's a remarkable athlete," Bill Bozak, the Capitals' trainer, said. "He tells you what's hurting, takes the treatment and then goes out there and gives whatever he has to give."

Part of yesterday's practice at Fort Dupont was devoted to handling pucks shot around the boards. Failure to do so properly was one of the key problems in the six-goal second period that enabled the Bruins to pull away from the Capitals Wednesday.

"You can blame the defense, and they certainly had their difficulties, but the wingers have a big responsibility when a team is really forechecking us, and our wingers could not take the puck off the boards and move it quickly," Coach Bryan Murray said.

"We have a lot of inexperience and we're paying for it. When something negative happens to young guys, they start to press and things tend to come apart. I'm hoping for more consistency as the younger guys get that experience."

Murray called the team together at center ice at the conclusion of practice and said, "It's nice to have a day off and I want you to enjoy yourselves tomorrow. But then we've all got to come back and have a heck of a second half."

The Capitals will resume action here Saturday against the New York Rangers, the only team they can reasonably hope to catch for a playoff spot. Washington trails the Rangers by eight points.

Because of the short holiday period, few players headed home for Christmas. Some had friends and relatives come here, while many planned to renew acquaintances with friends and former teammates in Hershey.

To underscore the youth of this team, the NHL's youngest at an average 23.4 years, 12 of the 23 players on the roster have played in Hershey in the last year. Two others, Bobby Carpenter and Gaetan Duchesne, are underage draftees.

Glen Sharpley, the Chicago center who was struck in the left eye by a stick during Saturday's game at Capital Centre, was discharged from Prince George's General Hospital yesterday and flew back to Chicago for Christmas.

Sharpley, who suffered severe hemorrhaging, has already regained 90 percent of the vision in the eye.

The Capitals announced yesterday that comedian Bob Hope will headline the entertainment at the NHL All-Star dinner Feb. 8 at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The $150 black tie dinner will benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and another entertainer that evening will be Gloria Loring, who has a youngster afflicted with the disease. The dinner will precede the NHL All-Star Game at Capital Centre on Feb. 9.