The Washington Capitals were loose and lively at practice yesterday, finally free of the five-game losing streak that had cast a pall over their previous 10 days.

But reality also was part of yesterday's agenda. As Coach Terry Murray said: "The fact is, we've won one of the last six. We've got to get going in a winning way so we can gain some points and keep close. The Patrick Division is so close."

At the moment, the Patrick may be as good as any other division, top to bottom. The first-place New York Rangers were first overall in the league early yesterday. The last-place Islanders would not be in last place in any other division. The Capitals are in between.

Monday night, Jim Hrivnak played a wonderful game in goal for the Capitals, who got two goals from John Druce to beat Detroit, 3-2, in overtime at Joe Louis Arena. Hrivnak stopped 41 of 43 shots -- the most allowed by the Capitals this season -- and numerous saves were spectacular.

"We hadn't won in five games, and I was looking for some magic," Murray said after the victory.

Hocus pocus can't be discounted here. In Hrivnak's previous outing -- last Wednesday in Toronto -- he played one of the worst games in his brief NHL career. He was pulled at the start of the third period, in what eventually became a 5-3 loss.

"I knew I had to have a good game," Hrivnak said yesterday. "I couldn't afford two bad games in a row. There are two older goalies and I wanted to show them I can play."

Murray doesn't like announcing his goalie ahead of time, but Hrivnak probably will get a chance to show the Maple Leafs and his teammates that his real ability is closer to what was on display in Detroit than in Toronto. The Leafs will be at Capital Centre for an 8:05 game tonight.

Hrivnak now has played all or part of 15 games over two seasons. As with many young goalies, gaining consistency is difficult. But he knows that unless he continues to perform well, he will go back to Baltimore when Don Beaupre recovers from his groin-muscle pull, which could be by this weekend.

Some goalies are so tight they almost twang when approached. Hrivnak is usually at the other extreme, on the surface at least.

"A lot of times they say I don't try because I'm so calm, but it's just because I'm mellow," Hrivnak said.

Murray acknowledges he is still learning how to read Hrivnak.

"I find sometimes his intensity level is a little up and down, a little inconsistent," Murray said. "That's part of becoming a pro. Physical talent will take you so far and the mental skills have to bring you the extra yard.

"You have to put a lot of pressure on yourself to reach that level and become the best you can be. It's pressure from himself, from me, from the organization. Then you have to see how he responds."

Meanwhile, defenseman Joel Quenneville was enjoying the victory less because he didn't play, and yesterday he was sent to Baltimore. The 13-year veteran -- who was acquired from Hartford for future considerations at the start of the season -- hasn't played in the minors since taking part in 16 AHL games at the start of the 1978-79 season.

"It was a decision we came to after the last two months," Murray said. Quenneville played in two early games, then four prior to the Detroit game, when Kevin Hatcher and then Rod Langway were out of the lineup. But Murray used Chris Felix against Detroit and Felix had two assists. Quenneville understandably was disappointed, but not bitter.

"I'm not going to pout," he said. "It doesn't do anybody any good. I guess I just have to prove them wrong."

Capitals Notes: Langway, who missed the previous four games because of an eye injury and his divorce trial, did not practice yesterday. Murray is hoping to have him back by the weekend. . . . Bob Joyce needed five stitches to close a cut in an eyebrow and another in a cheek. "The first thing you think of is: 'Why don't I wear a shield?' " said Joyce, who was hit in the face by a puck against Detroit -- his first game up from the minors.