Bengt Gustafsson received the Yvon Labre Award as the most popular member of the Washington Capitals at Wednesday's Fan Club dinner. Now that prize looms as a going-away present for the two-way center.

After Gustafsson suffered a fractured tibia just below the right knee joint Friday night, he indicated, as he has before, that he would prefer to play in Sweden, where among other things he is less likely to suffer a disabling injury.

"I want to play hockey, but where I play is something else," Gustafsson said. "I want it to heal and I'll stay here as long as necessary."

The leg was splinted and a cast will not be applied until Tuesday, when the swelling subsides. Then on Wednesday, Gustafsson will be visited by his brother-in-law's family from Sweden and he finds himself with more time to play host than he had anticipated.

Gustafsson, injured when he was tripped by Denis Potvin during a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders, once used a four-letter word during a radio interview to describe the harassment he takes on the ice from less skilled players. He has been plagued by injuries during his seven-year NHL career and when the regular season ends April 6, he will have missed 81 games -- more than one full season -- because of various physical problems.

Earlier this year, he sat out games because of a jammed wrist, a bruised tailbone, inflamed back muscles, a pulled leg muscle and a bruised hand.

"At the dinner Wednesday, everybody was telling me they hoped I didn't get any more injuries," Gustafsson said. "I guess we shouldn't have talked about it. Better off out of mind, I think they say."

Despite his physical problems, Gustafsson had become one of the best two-way players in hockey, a contender for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive player and the logical choice to be the Capitals' most valuable player.

A Gustafsson admirer is New Jersey Coach Doug Carpenter, who recently said, "He's [the Capitals'] best player. He's an all-round, smart, creative player. He's always making good plays."

Now the Capitals are forced to fight for first place in the Patrick Division without Gustafsson and Mike Gartner, who is recuperating from knee surgery. Although Gartner is expected to return for the playoffs, the twin absences leave the Capitals in a difficult situation.

"It would be easy to make excuses and give up," said Dave Christian, the Capitals' leading scorer who has benefited from so many Gustafsson setups. "We've got some depth and now we need to see some of that.

"There's no doubt he'll be missed. He was amazing with the puck. But there's not much you can do about it when you still have to play. Other guys will have to do more out there."

"When you lose your top two scorers, it will take everybody to pick up the slack," Larry Murphy said. "It can be done. It's been done before. But it will be a hard job."

"They did it when myself and Scotty [Stevens] were out," said team captain Rod Langway. "We can do it. We just have to dig deep. Now there will be a lot of pressure on guys like Leachie [Steve Leach] and [Mark] Taylor. They'll get an opportunity to play and they've got to produce.

"It won't be easy to make up for superstars like Gus and Mike, but if we can get a couple of good games and get on a roll, we'll be all right. A lot of credit goes to a lot of players on this team."

It is not logical to expect Christian, Craig Laughlin, Alan Haworth and Greg Adams, all of whom are enjoying their best NHL seasons, to do any more.

In fact, the opposite is likely as they draw more attention in the absence of Gustafsson and Gartner. Much more will be asked of Bob Carpenter, but he cannot carry the team by himself.

"You can't expect Carpy to make up for two goal scorers like Mike and Gus," Bob Gould said. "There have to be five or six guys to pick it up. That's too much pressure for one guy.

"Losing two guys like that is really tough. It hurt us for a period and a half last night, when we were worried about what happened to Gus. But there's a lot of character on this team and it should pull us through."

Coach Bryan Murray, who met with the team this afternoon, thinks the tight defensive nature of playoff competition will compensate somewhat for Gustafsson's loss.

"Not many teams survive losing two key guys," Murray said. "We just held a meeting and I've got to think we have as much character and leadership on this team as you can ask. We'll be a little short in scoring goals, but we have to count on defensive play and discipline to get the job done.

"It should be easier come playoff time, when by the nature of the games fewer goals are scored and discipline becomes a real factor."

For last night's game at Hartford, Murray reassembled the Adams-Haworth-Laughlin line that was the club's best during the first half of the season. He also assigned extra duty to Stevens, shifting between his usual defensive spot and the left wing alongside Carpenter and Christian.