Undefeated in their last three games, the Washington Capitals returned home from Boston hoping they had taken another step out of the trench that seemed to be caving in around them just a week ago.

"I think we're on our way up, but I don't think we're out of it yet," Coach Terry Murray said after yesterday's practice at Capital Centre. "We set a benchmark and that's where we've got to get back to."

In late November or early December, when the Capitals were edging toward first place, three straight games without a defeat might have led to a day off. But despite a 3-3 tie with Philadelphia Friday and a 5-3 win over the Bruins in Boston Garden Saturday night, Murray looks differently at this three-game stretch (worth five points in the standings).

It followed an eight-game winless streak, and Murray suspected the bad spell was due, in part, to a lack of practice. And the fifth-place Capitals are still five points behind the Penguins and Devils, who are tied for third.

Most of this week will be practice. The Capitals play an exhibition game against the Soviet team, Moscow Dynamo, Tuesday night at 7:35 at Capital Centre. Calgary makes its only regular season visit Friday night. The Capitals begin a three-game road trip Saturday in Montreal.

General Manager David Poile departed yesterday for an NHL general managers' meeting in Phoenix, amid speculation about trades that normally occur at such gatherings.

The Capitals' trip to Boston was their first there since they lost Games 1 and 2 to the Bruins in the Wales Conference finals last May. Saturday, Dino Ciccarelli scored two goals (both off feeds from Mike Ridley) and goalie Mike Liut played wonderfully.

Ciccarelli has 10 goals in 14 games since returning to the lineup from a fractured thumb. He's had four in the last three games, but Murray is happy that Ciccarelli's overall game has come back.

"He's playing with Ridley against some of the better lines from other teams and not giving up any goals," Murray said. "But more than his play away from the puck, he's got to give us that energy. He is the catalyst that makes the Washington Capitals go. I go back to my first game against New Jersey {Jan. 16, 1990}. We were down 4-1 and Dino went out and made three or four big hits. All four lines got rolling."

The Capitals received goals from all four lines against the Bruins, but there will be some new faces on the ice for Tuesday's exhibition. Other NHL teams have used players from their minor league teams in the so-called Super Series with the Soviets and the Capitals will do the same, bringing up seven players from Baltimore for the game.

Liut's play Saturday was good enough to resume the rotation with Don Beaupre, but both will get the night off. Jim Hrivnak, who Friday played his first game with the Skipjacks since injuring a knee, will start in goal. Olie Kolzig will be the backup.

Defenseman Mark Ferner will replace Rod Langway and four forwards -- Dale Hunter, Dave Tippett, Ciccarelli and Kelly Miller -- will not play, according to Murray. In their place will be Jeff Greenlaw, Steve Seftel, Thomas Sjogren and Reggie Savage.

This will be the Capital Centre debut for Savage, the team's first-round pick in 1988.

"Reggie has done the job from Day One," said Rob Laird, the Skipjacks coach. "He's really paid the price to score goals in front of the net."

Savage has 20 goals and 19 assists in 40 games -- he and Tim Taylor are the only Skipjacks to play in every contest. Playing right wing and hanging out in front of the net are the newest phases in Savage's career, which he and others in the organization thought might get him to this point sooner. Since an initial rush of excitement, there has been more caution.

"Reggie is really focused and I've been very happy with his attitude and outlook," Laird said. "He wants to play in the NHL, but he knows where he is."

Players in the minors are never as patient as coaches would like, but Savage is trying.

"I knew I'd start in Baltimore and I can see the process evolving," Savage said. "I just look at it one day at a time. I'll play one game against the Russians and see what happens. If you think too far ahead, you can get mixed up. It's one game, but I'll look at the positive side. You never know what's going to happen."