There is an element or two missing from the Washington Capitals, so when Steve Maltais scored three goals in a game for the Baltimore Skipjacks last weekend, he was rushed to the big leagues. The hope was that he could be a spark for a team that seems to have misplaced all of its flints.

"We seem to be waiting for something to happen -- 'waiting for my winger or my defensive partner to do something' -- and we don't have any flow to our game," Coach Terry Murray said yesterday.

But Maltais wasn't able to ignite much in two road games this week, so he was returned to the Skipjacks yesterday. By itself, the move was not a big deal. It simply represented another attempt at jump-starting this flagging team, which has a 2-5 record.

The Capitals are looking up at the rest of the Patrick Division. The first in view are the New York Islanders, who will visit Capital Centre for an 8:05 game tonight. The teams are tied in points (four), but the Islanders have lost only three games, so their winning percentage is better.

The Capitals have lost three in a row and are 0-4 in the division. The New Jersey Devils -- who defeated the Capitals, 3-2, Wednesday night in East Rutherford -- will visit Saturday night.

Of the two opponents, the Devils right now are the better team. After facing New Jersey, the Capitals will begin a five-game, nine-day road trip. Of those five opponents, only the defending Stanley Cup-champion Edmonton Oilers have a losing record. The other stops will be in Philadelphia, Chicago, Calgary and Vancouver.

The Capitals bused home after the loss to New Jersey, which meant they were home by 3:30 or 4:30 yesterday morning. Murray made yesterday's practice at Capital Centre optional. A few regulars -- Mike Liut, Michal Pivonka, Steve Leach, Dave Tippett and Alan May -- and those who aren't sure of playing every night were there, but the rest took the day off.

"Maybe a day away from the rink will be good for the mind," Murray said.

The Capitals have lost in all sorts of ways. They played decent defense Monday against Montreal, but slipped on some little things and didn't generate much offense. Against New Jersey, the Devils outworked and outshot them. Washington goalie Don Beaupre kept it close, but not close enough.

"As far as the intensity, it was probably the lowest level in a while," Beaupre said.

Murray is caught in something of a bind. He wants his team to generate more offense, but his players also have been guilty of trying to do things individually. That leaves gaping holes.

On the average, the Capitals have been spending less time in the penalty box. Through seven games this season, the Capitals have averaged just 17.3 penalty minutes, compared to 27.6 in 1989-90.

There are different ways to view that improvement in manners. Fewer shorthanded situations (32) probably has helped the penalty killers achieve their current ranking of second in the league. But it also may reflect a tentativeness and lack of aggressive play.

"When something does happen," Murray said, speaking generally, "we're reacting to it, rather than initiating the offense or defense."

Maltais probably will be back at some time. In the meantime, he was told to work on the little things, like making sure his man is fully taken out of the play when he's on defense.

"It's a little disappointing, but it's a learning experience," Maltais said. "I'll go back with a good attitude and hopefully I will be back up soon."

The Capitals did not bring up anyone to replace Maltais, so they are back to two extra forwards and one extra defenseman.

"It's a situation where I want him to get a lot of ice time and continue the development process," Murray said. "I talked about the Montreal game. It's the fundamentals, the little things about the game. Maybe they are boring and repetitious, but they are important to get done in a game so you can have success."