Capital Centre was quiet yesterday, the Washington Capitals' scheduled morning practice having been cancelled by Coach Terry Murray. The day off was not in the nature of a Christmas present to a team that is winless in its last five games.

The Capitals have not been able to hold a formal practice session since Wednesday morning and would appear in need of one, after playing horribly in a 5-2 home loss to Toronto Saturday afternoon.

Asked whether he had considered some hard skating drills yesterday in response to that sorry effort, Murray replied, "Damn right I did. I thought about putting the pucks in a pail at center ice and leaving them there for a couple of hours.

"But, physically, that wouldn't accomplish a thing. They're at the bottom of the barrel; the tank is empty. The best thing for them is to get away and get some rest. We can't play any worse. If we don't get the best execution Wednesday, at least we should have more effort."

That's when the Pittsburgh Penguins arrive for a game of some importance, because the surging Penguins have jumped over the Capitals into fourth place in the Patrick Division. The first four teams qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

So Murray wasn't merely issuing a threat to his players when he said, "We'd better play a heck of a lot better Wednesday."

Actually, the Capitals played very well in a 3-2 loss at Chicago Wednesday and a 3-3 tie at St. Louis Thursday before spoiling the home folks' holiday with Saturday's turkey. Starting on Dec. 15, they played five games in eight days during a stretch when most teams enjoy a schedule lull.

"At times we played very well in the three road games {including a 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers Monday}," Murray said. "All three were very intense games and we played damn hard. Besides that, the travel takes a lot out of you. There's no question guys are tired. The execution just isn't there."

With days off mandated today and Tuesday by the collective bargaining agreement, the Capitals have three days to rejuvenate. That is a luxury otherwise available only at all-star time and the players were looking forward to the break.

"Three days off can work either way, but we have been playing a lot of hockey," said defenseman Kevin Hatcher, who has logged more ice time than anyone else. "I think it will be beneficial to get some rest. You play a lot of hockey, it's a long season and you can't be strong every game. Sometimes you're just tired.

"Now we have to come back on Wednesday and be ready for Pittsburgh. It's a big divisional game."

Captain Rod Langway, who has endured other down periods in a 13-year NHL career, managed a smile as he said, "The way we're playing right now, I hope it helps. Some of the guys have bumps and bruises and it ought to help us to get away for three days.

"But we'd better be ready to come back on the 26th. We've got a tough month of January. We've got to win some games."

The Capitals have not been able to put a set lineup on the ice since the early weeks of the season. Forwards Dino Ciccarelli and Peter Zezel were out for long stretches with injuries, then Soviet defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov and forward Dimitri Khristich were signed and worked into the lineup.

One problem area is the power play, which led the league much of the early season and carried the Capitals through some rough spots. Now the team is zero for 18 with the extra man and eight failures Saturday were a big factor in the defeat, with Toronto converting three power plays.

Defenseman Chris Felix broke an ankle Saturday and is out, but Tatarinov should be back from a bruised knee and winger Dave Tippett's shoulder is better.