The Washington Capitals returned from their longest road trip of the hockey season yesterday and looked happily ahead to a March-April schedule that includes nine home games and just seven away contests.

Of those seven, only flights to Detroit and Boston will take the team beyond the New York-Philadelphia corridor that houses the rest of the Patrick Division contenders.

If the Capitals' 2-3-1 record on their 12-day journey fell one point short of Coach Bryan Murray's "realistic goal", it was hardly anything to lament. The five points were earned despite the absence of injured Mike Gartner, whose return now is programmed for Wednesday.

The Capitals came home only one point behind the New York Islanders in the fight for second place and home-ice advantage in what is increasingly becoming the likely first playoff matchup for Washington.

"We left town two points behind the Islanders and we're coming back only one point back," Murray said. "This trip could have been damaging and instead we actually picked up a point. Our goal for the rest of the regular season is to finish second and I haven't seen anything to indicate we won't make it."

Undoubtedly, everyone would have returned in higher spirits had the schedule brought the Capitals directly home from Thursday's playoff clinching in Calgary, instead of calling for a climactic stop in Montreal.

The players reached their hotel in Montreal Friday night in the midst of a power failure that even affected the phone system. Then, on Saturday, the Capitals were beaten by the Canadiens, 4-1, extending to 23 the club's stretch of winless visits to the Forum.

Sunday, the players sat aboard a plane in Boston awaiting the 12th and final takeoff of the trip, Naturally, it was the only flight to be delayed, with electrical problems leaving it 65 minutes behind schedule.

That was mere inconvenience. The actual low point of the trip occurred in Los Angeles Feb. 19, when Darren Veitch suffered a cracked collarbone that ended his already unhappy season.

On the incredible side, there were five occasions in the six games when goals were disallowed that replays indicated had been legally scored. Victimized Capitals were Alan Haworth in New York, Doug Jarvis in Vancouver and Ken Houston in Edmonton.

For some of the younger Capitals, the trip provided growing pains. In New York, Gaetan Duchesne stood outside the team's hotel and watched a woman shuffle up to a trash can, pull out a partially filled plastic coffee cup and finish the dregs.

"I could never live here," Duchesne said.

On the flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles, an attendant admonished Bob Carpenter for wearing a headset during takeoff. "If there's an emergency, you won't know it," the attendant said. "If I die, at least I'll go with music," Carpenter replied.

In Las Vegas, where the team relaxed for 2 1/2 days, Scott Stevens was ejected from a casino for being underage. Some of his teammates should have been so lucky. Ted Bulley was cleaned out in unusual fashion for Las Vegas. While the team worked out at a health club, someone broke into Bulley's locker and stole his clothing and wallet.

When the team arrived at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, a guest asked, "Are these the Lakers?" Dennis Maruk, the shortest Capital, laughed and said, "I wonder what position he thinks I play."

General Manager David Poile attended only two games, in New York and Montreal. The problems in Montreal have already been detailed.

In New York, following the 5-4 loss to the Rangers, Poile took Murray to a Chinese restaurant, which was closed for a private party. But the owner brought Poile and Murray inside and seated them in the group--a brokerage firm honoring the Rangers.

"We left early," Murray said. "Of all the restaurants in New York, we wind up with them."

Murray repeatedly shook his head over the inconsistencies of the various officials who worked the Capitals' games. Nothing, however, left him more bewildered than the metal detector at Calgary Airport. After five minutes of emptying pockets and alarms, it was determined Murray had been betrayed by two sticks of chewing gum.

"I thought for a while they were going to give me another bench minor," Murray said.