He had just finished what could be called a less than spectacular game--for him--yet there Wayne Gretzky sat in front of his locker, dripping wet from a too quick shower, surrounded by a thicket of microphones and cameras.

Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers had just beaten the Washington Capitals, and as might be expected, Gretzky did have a hand in the late scoring: an assist on the winning goal, and an empty net shot of his own with 31 seconds remaining. But all told, Gretzky, who has 56 goals and 102 assists now, had been credited with just two shots on goal, one each in the first and last periods.

Somebody with a tape recorder asked Gretzky, who had not logged all that many minutes on ice, "Are you as good as you used to be?"

For barely a second Gretzky was ready to bristle, then he relaxed and said with a tight little grin, "I'll leave that to you guys to decide."

Last night's game could hardly be grounds to judge Gretzky's performance overall this year. He did play fewer shifts than might be expected, particularly at the start of the final period.

Asked if Coach Glen Sather might be resting him up for the coming NHL playoffs, Gretzky responded, "I don't think that. I think it's just that this year on our team, you've got more guys playing well. That's the difference this season. There are 20 guys instead of 10 or 11 who are playing."

In making his lone Washington appearance of the year, did Gretzky feel any sort of pressure to provide a show for the paying customers? He smiled openly at that one.

"It hasn't been any different for me since I was 6 years old," he said. "People come to watch me play hockey. I'm aware of it. All I can do is go out and do the best I can. Nothing extra or different, just the best I can."

The best Gretzky was last night was not his patented scoring spree kind of game.

Most of the night, Gretzky faced off against Washington's high-plus line of Bob Gould, Glen Currie and Gaetan Duchesne.

"Yeah, we saw a lot of him," Gould said. "He kept us busy. But I thought maybe he wasn't out there that much. At least I know we were on the bench a lot, so I guess he was too. And he didn't get the puck all that many times tonight. If we can do that . . . "

Containing Gretzky is what 20 NHL teams try to do, at least three times a season.

"A lot of people would like to know just how to stop him," Doug Jarvis said. "I know I would like to know that answer."

But Gretzky said he has been controlled well by the Capitals in the past."This team has a history of doing a pretty good job against Wayne Gretzky, and this year, they're doing even better," he said. "Jarvis, (Brian) Engblom, (Rod) Langway--they're tough."

Langway, obviously disgusted at his own team's performance, said there is a temptation to zero in on Gretzky and ignore the rest of the Oilers. "But you know it's not just Wayne. They've got some other good players out there, Messier, Anderson, Coffey. We saw that tonight. You can't just ignore them."

Langway shadowed Gretzky a couple of times but said, "He wasn't our problem tonight. When he gets the puck, he can take off with it, but again, he wasn't as dominant as he can be."

Gretzky plays a regular shift, a turn on the power play and one on the penalty-killing unit. When handling the puck, he usually is trying to feed his wingers, or preparing to accelerate down ice for a handoff there.

If once in awhile his play isn't highlight film material, he isn't dwelling on it.

"I'm just one guy out of 20, trying to contribute," he said. "Trying to contribute to a win."