WHEN THE GOOD fans, business leaders and other civic boosters set out last summer to save the Washington Capitals from financial death or departure, there was never a guarantee of hockey performance--just that of another season. But people gave the franchise a break, screamed for the Capitals night after night, and the team got serious --all the way to the Stanley Cup playoffs for its first time ever.

All right, so it lost in the first round, three games to one. Except for a Saturday afternoon match best forgotten by the Capital Centre's center-ice hard core, the Capitals played courageously and well against the Big Team in the National Hockey League, the New York Islanders, who are now going for their fourth straight Cup. Clearly there is talent, savvy and, now, the experience of playoff pressure on this Capitals' team. With the Capitals trailing Sunday night by three goals, Coach Bryan Mur- ray told his charges, columnist Ken Denlinger reported, "Go out with a big effort." They pulled to within a goal before finally falling to the Islanders, 6-3.

We like to believe that financially as well as professionally the Caps are alive enough and well enough now to permit the old "wait 'til next year" consoler. But Caps' fans, fair-weather and foul-, have seen enough promise already. They can hardly wait for the next time the voice booms out: "H-e-e-e-re come the Capitals!"