Over the last four games, the Washington Capitals have given up 19 goals, more than during any other four-game stretch this season. It comes as no surprise that a team so heavily dependent on defensive play has lost three of the four.

Until they faced the New York Islanders Dec. 4, the Capitals had yielded five or more goals only three times in 24 games. But they lost that night, 6-4, and after a 10-3 blowout of lowly Los Angeles, they have dropped 5-4 decisions to Calgary and Hartford.

"I'm very concerned," said Coach Bryan Murray. "The last couple of games we've given up 10 goals. A couple came in one-on-one situations, where a guy was clearly beaten and a goal was scored.

"The other part is that we don't get the puck going and we have trouble getting out of our end. It's not just the defense, but the forwards not helping out. It keeps everybody on their heels instead of getting a good flow."

Part of the problem relates to the use of inexperienced defensemen in place of ailing Rod Langway and Greg Smith. But another negative has been the inability of Larry Murphy to repeat his efforts of last season, when he was rated the third-best defenseman in the NHL and led the Capitals in scoring and plus-minus.

Murphy also was an important factor in Canada's emotional victory over the Soviet Union in the Canada Cup. He was expected to be a dominant force for the Capitals this year, but it has not happened.

Since Murphy was struck in the face by a puck during the 4-2 victory over Edmonton Dec. 1, he has been particularly ineffective.

Against Los Angeles, he was stripped of the puck and Bernie Nicholls scored shorthanded on the ensuing breakaway.

Against Calgary, Murphy was caught up ice during a penalty-killing situation, helping the Flames score the goal that pulled them within 3-2.

Wednesday in Hartford, Murphy was on the ice for four of the Whalers' five goals. Although he was not specifically responsible for any of them, he admitted he had not turned in a very good performance.

"I'm not too satisfied with the way it's gone lately," Murphy said. "No one likes to go through hard times. I just go out every game hoping to turn things around."

Murray has talked with Murphy about the dropoff in play and the coach has no ready answer, but he does cite a few possibilities.

"Larry hasn't played as well as he can, and has to, play for us," Murray said. "He's a keynote for our hockey team, because he does such good things offensively. I think not playing with a regular partner the last few games has been a factor.

"Larry needs a guy with wheels to work with him, a guy like Scott {Stevens} who can get him the puck and who can do something when Larry gives him the puck.

"Since he was hit in the eye, he's been playing a little hesitant. It's taken away from his level of emotion. He needs to be pumped up out there."

For all of his problems, if Murphy had played at his current level a few years ago, most observers would have been satisfied. He is second on the team in scoring with 27 points, just one in back of Stevens, and his minus-one rating is a mere tick behind the rest of the defensemen.

However, after last season's heroics, Murphy and everyone else expect much more.

Capitals Notes: Smith hopes to return Saturday after suffering a bruised larynx when he took a stick in the throat Dec. 1. He has skated twice and said, softly and with difficulty, "Breathing is still a bit of a problem, but it's much better than it was. If the doctor gives me the okay, I'm ready." . . . Goaltender Pete Peeters has recovered from a strained knee ligament and most likely will start against Chicago Saturday . . . Alain Raymond returned to Fort Wayne yesterday. Although he was the loser in Hartford Wednesday, Raymond played very well in relief of Clint Malarchuk. "I'm happy I got a chance to play," Raymond said. "That should help me when I come back."