The Washington Capitals welcomed defenseman John Barrett back from a year's rehabilitation on Sunday. Yesterday, on the eve of a key home-and-home series against the New Jersey Devils, they traded him to the Minnesota North Stars.

Barrett, 29, suffered a fractured left kneecap at Vancouver on Feb. 20, 1987. He was undergoing a series of stress tests in Ottawa on July 28, preparatory to resuming skating, when the kneecap separated again.

Following extensive work, Barrett returned to action in Binghamton Feb. 19 and played five games for the American Hockey League Whalers.

He was sound enough to draw the attention of the injury-riddled North Stars and, since Washington already had one defenseman sitting out each game, he was dealt away for "future considerations," hockey's euphemism for a low draft choice.

"It's an opportunity for me and I have to make the most of it," said Barrett, who came to Washington from Detroit with Greg Smith two years ago in the Darren Veitch trade. "I didn't have much to look forward to here except going back to Binghamton.

"Hopefully, I can finish the season in Minnesota and get my feet under me. I didn't work for a whole year to get myself in shape not to play."

At the same time, the Capitals assigned defenseman Chris Felix, a previously signed member of the Canadian Olympic team, to Fort Wayne of the International Hockey League.

U.S. Olympian Steve Leach, a right wing, skated with the Capitals yesterday, but he was put on notice that, barring injuries, he most likely will be assigned to Binghamton by the trading deadline March 8.

Although the Capitals have outscored the opposition, 35-16, over the last eight games, General Manager David Poile would like one more slick shooter in uniform before the trading deadline, but he is not optimistic.

"If the opportunity arose to make a deal, I'd be looking to add somebody who can score," Poile said. "But because of the close races and the parity in the NHL, I don't foresee that kind of player becoming available without making a major change in the hockey club."

The Capitals, who have won seven of their last eight games, will virtually guarantee themselves a playoff berth if they can sweep the home-and-home series against the Devils, tonight at Capital Centre and Wednesday at the Meadowlands. Conversely, should New Jersey win both games, the Capitals once again would be in a struggle for fourth place in the Patrick Division.

Although Washington has won three of four from the Devils this season and owns an overall margin of 30-5-4 since the Colorado franchise moved to New Jersey in 1982, there are several potential pitfalls.

For one thing, the Capitals are on such a roll that they may take the Devils lightly. Also, this is the Capitals' first home game in 16 days and they have a habit of falling on their faces when returning from a long road trip.

Perhaps the most significant factor about tonight's matchup is the failure of the New Jersey franchise to win in 22 attempts at Capital Centre since a 3-1 Colorado triumph on March 2, 1980. The Devils are well aware of that blot and are keyed up to wipe it out.

"We had never won in Edmonton and we won there," said Coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We hadn't won in Toronto in four years and we won there. I think it's time for Washington."

"We look at that game the same way we looked at 3-0 down against Minnesota {an 8-6 victory Sunday}," said right wing Pat Verbeek. "It's a thing we have to throw out of the way. We have to play our hardest and play intelligent hockey. We'll just have to outwork them."

Washington Coach Bryan Murray does not expect the Capitals to be ambushed by a letdown tonight.

"Not at this time, not the way we're playing," Murray said. "Every game is important now and the guys are aware of what we have to do to be in fairly good position at the end.

"New Jersey has played us tough too many times to look past. Even though they haven't won at Capital Centre, they've played very well and we've had a lot of close games."

The Devils were bedeviled last week when they dropped three straight games by a total score of 9-3, despite outshooting the three opponents by 118-51. The drought ended in the victory over Minnesota, with Verbeek scoring four goals.

"I hope that was a turning point," Schoenfeld said. "I wasn't pleased with the defensive coverage, but I loved it the last three games and we lost all three. I'd like to see our attack continue like this, but we can't give Washington the chances we gave Minnesota. They have a lot of slick guys and you can't allow them room."

Capitals Notes:

The team received some good news yesterday when an extensive examination of goalie Pete Peeters' bruised left foot by Dr. Richard Grossman disclosed no bone damage. Peeters will begin treatment today and should be able to play in a week, although he will have to wait longer if Clint Malarchuk maintains a hot pace that has seen him record three shutouts in the last four games.