Penalty killing, according to Washington Capitals specialist Bill Collins, is a "percentage type situation. You try to keep the puck away from a team's best shot. Of course, the percentages against a team like Montreal aren't worth much."

The Capitals visit Montreal tonight for their 14th meeting with the mighty Candiens. The other 13 games have resulted in defeat, by a combined score of 89-18. Since the Canadiens are unbeaten in their last nine games and boast an incredible 30-5-6 record, there is little reason for Capital optimism. There is no thought of playing dead, either.

"Montreal is a controlled team, with so many good shots," Collins said. "But they're human, too. You just do the best you can with what you've got. If you do your best and it's not good enough, at least you tried."

Collins, 33, has been giving the best he can for 10 NHL seasons and the Montreal trip is in the nature of a homecoming, since he played for the Canadiens in 1970-71. Monday's game in Detroit carries similar memories, since he toiled for the Red Wings from 1971-74. When you've played for seven teams, there are many homecomings, many reunions.

For example, Collins left Montreal with current teammate Guy Charron in a 1971 trade for Frank Mahovlich. In 1974, he and another present Capital, Ace Bailey, traveled to St. Louis in a deal that sent recent Washington arrival Bryan Watson to the Red Wings.

"I have no regrets about playing hockey, despite all those moves," Collins said. "I have learned more about life and people, about business, being a professional athlete and traveling, than I could in any other field.

"The situations I've been involved in have helped me as a man, helped me in my outlook on life. I think it's helped my family, too. When you're upset, your family is upset. When you act level headed, they do, too. It's how you accept it and react to it that counts."

On Dec. 4, Collins was sold down the expressway, from the Stanley Cup contending Philadelphia Flyers to a Washington team that has only distant possibilities of a playoff berth. He was not displeased.

"It was a blessing, not a detriment," Collins said. "I'm playing a lot more here and in Philadelphia I just had a one-year deal. I'm sure they had intentions of using me only one year. I'm in real good shape now and I feel good. I hope I can play a few more years now."

When Collins first wore a Capital uniform, in Boston Dec. 5, he appeared to be a one-man slow-motion replay. McVie, who had played against Collins in the Western League 13 years ago, took a look and wondered what this plodder could do to help his struggling team.

"When I watched him I wasn't sure we'd get anything," McVie said. "I didn't know what to expect. The guy hadn't played that much and he certainly wasn't in shape.

"I talked to him, like I did the other veterans, and told him he'd see a lot of things here he'd never seen before. I told him just to keep his mouth shut and do what I told him.

"He did double duty on everything and never once complained. Now he's in motion all night long. He's as light as when he played junior hockey. I knew he was a good chekcer, but we're getting a lot more than just checking out of him."

Indeed, in the Capital's last eight games, Collins has been the team's leading scorer, with five points.After 15 games in a Washington uniform, playing on a line that consistently tackles the opposition's high scorers, Collins has plus one rating.

"The first two weeks were extremely difficult for me," Collins said. "What to me seemed extra work was just normal procedure here. I had to do a lot more skating exercises after practices, too. But it's done nothing but help me."

Collins is a Capital because general manager Max McNab has a memory that would shame an elephant.

"Little things stick with you," McNab said. "I have watched him with interest because he played in the Western League in Denver in 1963-64 and I was at Vancouver, working with the New York Rangers.

"Emile (Francis) called me and said he had a chance for a deal, with a choice of Collins and another guy. The other guy had lots of points and Emile wanted to know who was best.

"I said the one guy had a tremendous amount of ability and no guts, that Collins had a fistful of guts. He took Collins. The other guy lasted two more years and Collins is still around.

"He had a lot of a determined type of courage. I saw him off and on through the years and knew him as a good, sound NHLer. He hasn't changed. He came in and we explained what we wanted. He has done a fine job, been a steady performer."

McNab first talked with Collins last summer, after the New York Rangers dropped the right wing they had allowed to gather splinters on the bench. But the Capitals were burdened with holdover contracts and it was not until the Flyers assumed the care and feeding of Harvey Bennett that McNab could see his way clear financially to add Collins to the roster.

Already, he can mark that Bill paid.