The Washington Capitals officially played a game last Sunday but it was a vapid, 8-2 losing performance against the Boston Bruins. So Coach Terry Murray included a lot of scrimmaging and a lot of skating in the week that followed.

Whether all of that gyrating cleansed their hockey souls will be determined at 1:30 today when they play the Chicago Blackhawks at USAir Arena. The Capitals will then fly to New Jersey to face the Devils Sunday night.

Aside from gaining the two points from a victory, both Chicago and Washington have something to prove or rebound from. The Capitals (17-18-4) would like to return to .500 after getting plastered by Boston. The newest expansion teams, Florida and Anaheim, are already competitive, but it's doubtful that the fans who always fill Chicago Stadium were glad they came Thursday night when the upstart Mighty Ducks blasted the venerable Blackhawks, 6-2.

The Blackhawks are in fifth place in the Central Division, but of the six teams in that division, only Winnipeg would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. Chicago has one of the best, nastiest, most talented and richest defensemen in the National Hockey League in Chris Chelios. Jeremy Roenick, the onetime Fairfax resident, leads the team in scoring with 48 points.

The Blackhawks' forwards traditionally pressure opposing defensemen in hopes of creating scoring opportunities. That can be especially effective on smaller rinks such as those at Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden. The Capitals are winless in their previous six trips to Chicago and 0-3-1 in their past four visits to Boston.

The Capitals will benefit from the larger (regulation) ice in Landover, where they are 8-6-4 this season as opposed to 9-12-0 on the road. They will also be helped by the return of defenseman Al Iafrate, who missed five of the past six games with a sprained knee.

"I have a little more confidence because I've skated more on the leg," Iafrate said after practice yesterday. He is third on the Capitals in scoring with four goals and 21 assists.

However, the Capitals' defense still is patched together and might be prone to leaks. Shawn Anderson will go into the defensive lineup for the first time since Nov. 30, which means a third of the defense is different. And because Iafrate is just getting back, Murray planned to use all six defenders, more than he might normally. Jason Woolley won't play for the next three weeks because of a torn abdominal muscle. Defenseman Enrico Ciccone won't play today because he's automatically suspended for one game after getting his third game misconduct in the Boston game, but probably will play Sunday. Team captain Kevin Hatcher had his broken hand X-rayed Thursday and he has clearance to fully participate in next week's practices, though gripping a stick is still quite painful.