Although Pete Peeters is the runaway leader among National Hockey League goaltenders with a goals-against average of 2.46, his appearances often raise the blood pressure of the Washington Capitals' coaching staff.

It is not that he falls prey to soft goals. Instead, it is his susceptibility to injury that has created problems in what should be a season to cherish.

Three times he has removed himself from games after performing brilliantly. Those departures were influenced by a different decision, in his first start this season, when he played hurt and was beaten, 6-5, in Buffalo. When he has been healthy, he has been superb, and yesterday the NHL honored him, along with New Jersey goalie Bob Sauve, as co-performers of the week. In a 4-3 victory over Montreal and a 1-0 overtime victory over Philadelphia, Peeters stopped 50 of 53 shots.

"Pete is staying on his feet and making people beat him," said Coach Bryan Murray. "He's a big goaltender and if he's angled properly there's not a lot of net left for anyone to shoot at.

"When he's had the chance to play, he's played very well. Most of his games, he hasn't given up even a questionable goal. Definitely, it's Pete's turn now."

When Peeters starts tonight in Pittsburgh, it will be his 21st appearance. Clint Malarchuk has been in 36 games, with the imbalance directly related to Peeters' injuries.

Peeters bruised a finger before the game at Buffalo and Murray chastised him for not reporting it. Thereafter, Peeters was less reticent to pull himself from games after bruising ribs, straining a knee ligament and pulling a groin muscle.

"When a guy plays hurt, he cheats himself," Murray said. "He's not at his best and he may play poorly and hurt his confidence. Then, he may hurt the team, too, if he's less than 100 percent, because we may have somebody to fill in. You don't want to criticize a guy for wanting to play, but you want him to make you aware of the situation."

Peeters' knee gave way on the Capitals' last visit to Pittsburgh Nov. 28, after he had stopped a flurry of 12 shots in the first 17 minutes. Malarchuk yielded all five goals in what ended as a 5-5 tie.

It took Peeters two weeks to get back in action and he was on a roll when he suffered pulled a groin muscle after blanking Philadelphia over the first period Dec. 26.

Once again he was idle two weeks and, after the team was blitzed in Calgary on his return Jan. 10, he waited nine days before Murray gave him another chance.

"He was coming back from an injury and he thought he was ready to play," Murray said. "I didn't, and I wanted to see some things, to make him show me he could play. When Pete bears down on himself and makes demands on himself, he comes very quickly."

For his part, Peeters has indicated he does not always agree with Murray's handling of the goaltenders. Warren Strelow, the goalie coach, is the peacekeeping force when differences arise.

If the injuries have made this a difficult season for Peeters, his situation nevertheless is far better than 13 months ago, when he was returning from exile in Binghamton.

"Every year is different," he said. "Last year down in Binghamton I had a chance to reflect and it pushed me to work harder. Then Warren got back in the picture and told me things I wish I'd understood four or five years ago.

"We analyzed a lot of things, I had a good finish and I was so excited going into this training camp, planning a lot of things to work on. Then there was the injury in Buffalo and I got sick. But it's been good to have Clint around to get hot in those situations . . .

"You have competitiveness between us, but you pat each other on the back, too. If this team can win the Stanley Cup, nobody's going to be concerned about who played the most games."