Other players have risen in stature while he was gone and the Washington Capitals do have a winning record. But perennial 40-goal scorers always are missed.

Dino Ciccarelli is back -- probably.

"Six or seven weeks, that's been enough," Ciccarelli said yesterday in discussing the fractured thumb that has kept him out of the lineup since Oct. 20, a total of 20 games. "Everything is fine. It's all healed. I'm not a hundred percent, though. I know I want to play, but it's up to Terry."

Ciccarelli has been skating with the team for weeks, but there is a level of conditioning that can only be reached by playing in games. That appears to be the only reason Coach Terry Murray didn't declare Ciccarelli definitely would play tonight when the Capitals meet the Penguins at Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.

"We'll skate {this} morning and see how he's doing," Murray said after practice yesterday. "It will come down to game conditioning. I don't know for sure if he will be in the lineup."

The part of Murray that saw his team look flat in losing to Montreal and go scoreless for 44 minutes in an eventual victory over the New York Islanders would want Ciccarelli in the game. Ciccarelli tends to create activity.

"He's the type that can get a hot as a pistol," Murray said.

But another part of Murray doesn't like to mess with combinations that are working. He isn't entirely happy with some players, but Ciccarelli can't be put on just any old line, with any old center and any old left wing.

"It's a possibility we could move him in" with center Mike Ridley, Murray said. "It's a line that has worked well in the past. Maybe that's something that will help both of them."

Ciccarelli did not have a blistering start. He had one goal and four assists in the nine games. The team was 4-5 with him, and is 11-9 without him. Last season, he also had one goal in the first nine games (the team was 3-4-2), but recovered to score 41. That marked his fifth consecutive 40-goal season and sixth in his career.

Ridley has just six goals, with 12 assists. In recent weeks, he and whatever wings he's had have become a checking line, charged with shutting down the opponent's top scoring threesome.

Although it will be harder to match lines on the road, that is an especially important function tonight, given that the Penguins have three forwards (John Cullen, Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens) among the league's top dozen in scoring. Ciccarelli may never have been on a checking line in his life.

"I didn't want to come back until I can play the way I can normally play," said Ciccarelli of his hand injury. "I'll try to get some shots, draw some penalties."

When Ciccarelli had surgery Oct. 22, a pin was inserted into the thumb. Last

eek, he said, doctors used pliers to pull out the pin, leaving a small hole. The injury occurred when New Jersey's Laurie Boschman slashed him. The Capitals asked the league to review the tape and consider a suspension for Boschman, but that was denied.

"He didn't do it intentionally, I don't think," Ciccarelli said of Boschman, whose team will visit Capital Centre Friday for the first of a two-game, home-and-home series. "I was in a goal-scoring situation. He's a defensive player and he caught me pretty good."

Capitals Notes: With Mike Liut still bothered by a strained groin muscle, Don Beaupre will start in goal and Olie Kolzig was called up from Baltimore to serve as the backup. . . . Ridley, who missed Saturday's game and Monday's practice with a case of the flu, practiced yesterday and said he is ready to go. . . . Murray said Peter Zezel -- who has been out with a sprained left ankle since Oct. 30 -- would try to skate for the first time on Thursday. . . . If Ciccarelli goes in, Steve Leach might come out. Alfie Turcotte and Steve Maltais, who rejoined the team Monday after shuttling back and forth to Baltimore, probably will be in the lineup, Murray said. . . . John Slaney, the team's 1990 No. 1 draft pick, signed a contract yesterday, although he will remain with his junior team in Cornwall, Ontario.