Like most Ontario natives in the National Hockey League, Washington winger Mike Gartner looks forward to games in Maple Leaf Gardens.

First, it is an opportunity for friends and relatives to see him play. Second, the chances of victory are excellent.

Gartner is looking forward to the Capitals' contest with the Maple Leafs Wednesday even more than usual, because Washington is urgently in need of a winning effort.

The Capitals have lost three straight and the upcoming schedule is difficult. They play a home-and-home series with Buffalo, a team they have beaten only three times in 44 games. Then they make a three-game swing to Calgary, Winnipeg and Chicago.

"We have to end this now," said Gartner, who has scored three of the Capitals' five goals. "We seem to do this to ourselves every year and we're still trying in December to get back where we know we ought to be.

"We expend a lot of energy doing it and it could be a reason we've come up short in the playoffs. I hate playing from behind the eight ball all the time."

Gartner, in his seventh Washington season, has been a part of many slow starts. The worst were the 1-14 horror in 1981 that cost Gary Green his job as coach and the 0-7 debacle of 1983. Gartner sees none of the symptoms of those struggles in the current situation.

"That 1-14 year was unique," Gartner said. "It was a different hockey team and it can't compare to 1983 and this year. The nucleus of the team was different. At that time we were grasping at a million different excuses, but I think we just weren't a good enough hockey team.

"I don't know what caused the 0-7 start two years ago. But that was a new hockey team, we'd basically been together only a couple of years and we were still in transition. We were trying to find our identity.

"I can't figure this out right now. We have an identity and we've proven ourselves. We've been through it and we should be able to use that experience to turn it around.

"We do seem to be making some mistakes technically. There's far too wide a gap between offense and defense in the neutral zone. And we're not keeping up sustained offensive pressure. We've had a lot of outside shots, but not a lot of good scoring opportunities.

"We don't have real coordination, but it's not beyond repair. Hopefully, this is the last conversation we'll ever have to have on the subject."

Gartner is glad that nobody is panicking, that everything is proceeding along normal lines. But the panic button could get some use if the Capitals lose Wednesday. Washington has not been beaten here since Dec. 5, 1981, winning the last five games by scores of 6-4, 5-3, 3-1, 8-0 and 4-1.

"The term 'must game' has been used too much, but I think this time that is the case," Gartner said. "Buffalo gives us trouble and seven of nine on the road is a tough start under any conditions. We're playing good hockey teams and I'd be happy to get out of this month .500."