The Washington Capitals, coming off their toughest defeat of the season, return to action Wednesday night in Winnipeg, where they suffered their most heartbreaking loss of 1983-84.

Saturday the Capitals dropped a 5-4 decision to Philadelphia on Brian Propp's goal with two seconds left in regulation time. But at least it was a legitimate score.

The last time the Capitals visited Winnipeg, on Feb. 19, they had a club-record 10-game winning streak and 14-game unbeaten string snapped by Doug Smail's overtime goal, 4-3.

On that occasion, the Jets lofted the puck down the ice and goalie Pat Riggin and defenseman Larry Murphy played Alphonse and Gaston, watching the puck roll by for Smail to tap into the empty net.

The loss dumped Washington out of first place in the Patrick Division, after it had occupied it less than 24 hours, and the Capitals never managed to climb to the top again the rest of the season.

This time Washington owns a seven-point lead over runner-up Philadelphia. The Capitals have lost only three of their last 19 road games and, except for a couple of concerns, they appear to be in good shape for the stretch run.

A recurring problem is the physical condition of winger Bengt Gustafsson. Idle six weeks earlier because of a pulled right hamstring, he is scheduled to miss the next three games with a less severe pull in the left hamstring.

Winger Greg Adams bruised a knee against Philadelphia and will sit out Wednesday's game while Coach Bryan Murray gets another look at Lou Franceschetti, who has been burning up the American League with Binghamton.

"I talked to Larry Pleau (Binghamton's general manager-coach) and he told me Louie was really playing well," Murray said. "Apparently, he's more into it and he's intense every game.

"That's always been his problem here -- consistency. He'll give us four good games and then he seems to lose his concentration."

Another concern is the team's penalty killing. Washington has permitted six power play goals in the last 15 chances and continues to rank near the bottom of the NHL. Already the Capitals have yielded 52 extra-man goals; all last season they gave up only 39 while leading the league.

Another concern is the schedule, which puts the Capitals here for a game Thursday. That means Washington's four All-Stars -- Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner -- will be playing three games in three nights.

Calgary, meanwhile, is idle Wednesday, as is the rest of the NHL. The game in Winnipeg was inserted the night after the All-Star Game at the request of the Capitals, to ease their travel situation.

As it has turned out, however, the team must catch a 6:45 a.m. plane from Winnipeg to Calgary Thursday morning, so the players do not figure to be in the best of shape to meet the Flames.

"We wanted to do it this way, because otherwise we would have been forced to extend the road trip," said General Manager David Poile. "The way it's turned out, though, we may have made a mistake."

Three goaltenders are making the trip, with Al Jensen ready to begin skating after his arthroscopic surgery last week. Riggin is scheduled to start his fifth straight game in Winnipeg, with Bob Mason still doing penance for his poor effort against Toronto Feb. 1.