There are a few days left on the 1990 calendar, and the Washington Capitals' 1990-91 season is just about half finished. But a three-day holiday respite ends tonight, and given the way things have gone lately, they could be forgiven for wanting to ring in the new year a tad early. The old one is ending with a wimper.

The 39th game of the Capitals' 80-game season will begin tonight at 7:35, with the Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital Centre. The Capitals have been streaky this season and the current run is down. They are 0-4-1 in their last five games and find themselves in fifth place in the Patrick Division. They are closer to the last-place New York Islanders (seven points ahead) than they are to the first-place New York Rangers (nine points back), who visit on Friday. The Penguins lost to the Islanders on Sunday, but they were undefeated in their prior six games and are one point ahead of the Capitals.

Washington was 18-16-4 at this stage last season -- three fewer losses and three more ties than this year. But in their 39th game last season, the Capitals blew a lead against the Los Angeles Kings for the first of eight straight losses, after which Terry Murray replaced his brother, Bryan, as coach.

Within all teams are individual successes and failures, and the Capitals are no different. Right wing Steve Leach is one of those scraping to keep a spot.

Leach, who will be 25 on Jan. 16, had his best season as a Capital in 1989-90 in terms of points (18 goals, 14 assists). He signed a contract in the fall, so that burden was lifted. The hope was that he would take a giant step. But it's been more like a shuffle. In 32 games, Leach has seven goals and nine assists, so he's behind last season's pace for goals but ahead on assists.

"Points for me are weird," he said. "They come in spurts. But when they are not coming, I've got to do other things and work hard. And eventually, when I do get my opportunities to score, I've got to bury them. That is the key."

Leach played the previous five seasons for the Capitals, though only the last two were completely in Washington.

"He's had plenty of time in the NHL to establish a particular kind of game," Terry Murray said last Thursday night before the Capitals' 3-3 tie with St. Louis. "We get it once in a while. He has to play his trump card every game."

Murray's comment was an explanation of why Leach was scratched from the lineup that night. Three nights earlier against the Rangers, he also watched from the press box. Other than the three October games he missed because of a concussion, those are the only games he's missed this season.

"I think in Chicago, in my mind, I was intense," Leach said of the game he played between the two scratches. "In {Murray's} mind, I wasn't. Maybe I wasn't taking the extra step to finish my checks all the time, and I think that's what he wants me to do."

Leach is correct about his points coming in clumps. In early November, he had six points in a seven-game stretch. But in the last nine games he's played there is just a single assist.

"Some of it has to do with Dino coming back," Leach said of his decreased playing time now that Ciccarelli is healthy. "But I'm not using that as a crutch. A regular shift is where I've got to concentrate. Maybe I got away from that. Who knows? I've just got to pick up my game."

At 5 feet 11, 198 pounds, Leach is a sturdy sort. But he's very quick going up the wing and has a shot that can sting. Those are the trump cards Murray wants played every hand.

"Maybe at times when you don't play as much, like in my situation, you try to do too much," Leach said. "Then when things don't go right, you get frustrated. Then the confidence goes. It's just something you've got to work out. It's like our team. We're not doing it for 60 minutes. There is no magic, just hard work."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov, who missed the last two games with a sore knee, will skate this morning and then decide if he can play tonight. The Baltimore Skipjacks also will skate at Capital Centre before departing for tonight's game in Hershey, Pa. If Tatarinov can't play, a Skipjacks defenseman would stay and play, General Manager David Poile said yesterday.