These are trying times for Bengt Gustafsson, whose return from Sweden was widely hailed as the magic ingredient necessary to fulfill the Washington Capitals' recipe for a Stanley Cup.

Over the past 10 games, Gustafsson has no goals and two assists. Over the last five, he has managed only four shots on goal.

Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Gustafsson not only was held without a shot but reached the stage where completing a routine pass was cause for celebration. During a second-period power play, Gustafsson was unable to handle a feed from Dave Christian, retrieved the puck and was so off target with a pass to Kevin Hatcher at the point that the puck slid down the ice.

There are three theories for Gustafsson's struggles. They include: (1) difficulty adjusting to the demanding NHL schedule after an easy year in Sweden, (2) inability to cope with the pressure generated by his highly publicized return or (3) a stale period caused by an already long season that began with the start of Canada Cup training camp in July.

"I don't know, really, but I hope the right answer is because I've been on the ice a long time and there's a reaction right now," Gustafsson said. "It's been the same to Mike {Gartner}. Playing in the tournament was a big thing, very emotional. But I feel good. I'm not tired. I can't blame that on how I'm playing."

Gustafsson discounts the pressure theory, although it will be remembered that when he appeared via an overseas television hookup at a much-ballyhooed press conference at the Swedish Embassy, Gustafsson was asked his brand of beer by owner Abe Pollin, so it would be available for swigging from the Stanley Cup.

"I don't worry about things like that," Gustafsson said. "I'm my own person and you can only do what you feel up to. I put pressure on myself, because I want to do well and I want to win. But what people outside the game may say, I don't care."

The current copy of "Good Times," the official Capital Centre publication, carries a cover picture of Gustafsson and an inside headline reading, "Man on a Mission." A quote from General Manager David Poile is highlighted: "No player . . . could have more of an impact on the team the next two seasons."

Certainly, management remains optimistic about Gustafsson's ability to right himself and go on to a big campaign.

Coach Bryan Murray said, "Right now, Gus doesn't have the jump he normally has. I think he's frustrated, because his skating is not as sharp as it should be. He's working hard in practice and this is an adjustment period, as I see it. He's a creative type player and it takes them longer to get back in the routine.

"He's trying to do things, but they're not working. His passes aren't clicking. It's a tough period for him, but he doesn't seem to be getting down on himself."

Gustafsson always has been a happy-go-lucky type, never overreacting to a great performance or a bad one.

"You can only hope it will turn around," Gustafsson said. "There has to be a day it will go your way, when the puck will stick to your stick instead of missing. It's tough to adjust when you try to do things, but you go one way and the puck goes another."

Despite his current problems, Gustafsson insists his heart is here and not in Sweden.

"This is where I want to play now," he said. "I spent all summer getting ready for it and I want to win. When I went home last year, I was bored and tired after playing seven years in the NHL. A lot of things had gotten to me, like my wife being in Sweden while I was here.

"This year is different. My wife is here and all I have to think about is helping the Capitals win hockey games. I expect that to start happening tomorrow {when Minnesota visits Capital Centre}."

Capitals Notes:

For two straight days, Murray has sent the Capitals through intensive 40-minute skating drills without pucks. Yesterday, he and assistant Terry Murray left the ice after that segment, telling the players the ice was available for another 50 minutes for shooting. "We've done some good skating the last two days, for conditioning and an incentive to work harder," Murray said. "We've had some poor stretches. I wanted to give them some time to give the goaltenders work, but they don't need me standing there" . . . The Capitals tied a club record with only one shot on goal in the first period in Pittsburgh Wednesday. Minnesota set a low for an opponent that will stand forever, being held without a shot in the third period at Capital Centre on Dec. 26, 1975.