The Washington Capitals skated bravely into year three with only one fixed target, the reduction of the goals-against figure. Today, two games short of the finish, they are 100 goals removed from last year's yield of 394. That is accomplishment.

In the Capitals' first two seasons, that mocking red light made it difficult to educate Washington fans to the importance of plus-minus statistics, goals scored while a player is on the ice. The minus figures gained control on opening night and were compounded as far as 81.

Entering Saturday night's game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum, four players -- Bill Riley, Bob Paradise, Bob Sirois and Yvon Labre --way from Canadien Larry Robinson's plus 116, but so is everyone else in the NHL.

Labre, one of the original Capitals, leaned back the other day and said, "The first year I was minus 58, then minus 34, now I'm plus two. That's improvement."

During their first two seasons, the Capitals were routinely labeled "hapless" by headline writers around the league. Out-of-town reporters vied in dreaming up more disparaging words, like "Washington's worst disgrace since Watergate," said, "The NHL version of the Ice Follies." Today another word is frequently associated with the Capitals. It is "respect."

To merit that respect from others, the Capitals first needed to gain respect for themselves. It was not an easy thing to instill in a team that had lost 67 games its first season, 59 its second.

Coach Tom McVle, deservedly showered with most of the credit for this season's amazing turnabout, recalled that, "The big thing I had to fight against here was the attitude. When I came here, every guy had two sets of crutches, one to wear around the rink and another in his locker. We've gotten rid of the crutches."

To eliminate the defeatism and excuses, McVie combined super conditioning with rah-rah motivation and a system of play where none existed before. It was not easy, but McVie and general manager Max McNab finally found 19 players who believed.

For much of the season, the lure of a playoff berth provided extra motivation. As late as Feb. 1, Washington hovered within six points of third place in Norris Division and management was accepting playoff ticket deposits from fans who believed, too.

The playoffs proved an impossible dream and it would not have been surprising if the Capitals' reaction brought on total collapse. After all, they had worked harder than any other theam in the NHL, and now there were to be no postseason rewards.

Instead, in a late surge that deserves the utmost praise, the Capitals have built the first four-game winning streak in the team's history. They whipped the New York Rangers, who desperately needed a victory to stay in playoff contention. They thrashed the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, both struggling to gain home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. And they skated away from the "hapless" Detroit Red Wings.

The string lifted the Capitals' victory total to 24, a heady figure for a team that won only 19 in its first two seasons combined. The points reached 62, just one triumph short of doubling last season's production. But it was not only in the sense of tangible accomplishment that the Capitals were as remarkable an accomplishment as those 62 points. Only three current players -- goalie Ron Low and Defensemen Labre and Gord Smith --were with the Capitals when they started play in 1974.

For this campaign, McNab asserted that all jobs were open in training camp, and proved it by promoting Gordie Lane, a lightly regarded International League defenseman who has played all 67 games in capable fashion.

McNab and McVie meshed veterans Guy Sharron, who was refused a multiyear contract by Colorado; Bryan Watson, considered washed up in Detroit; Bill Collins, a Philadelphia benchwarmer dropped by the Rangers earlier, and Craig Patrick, an NHL castoff who became unemployed with the demise of the WHA Minnesota Fighting Saints. All have made important contributions to the Capitals' success.

But perhaps in no other respect is the Capitals' outlook of "one for all" better embodied than in the development of right wing Riley, promoted from Dayton Dec. 30. Riley is a rookie and on many NHL teams rookies are treated like the plague until they have proven themselves. Riley is also the NHL's only black player and, in this imperfect, highly prejudiced world, it would not be surprising for color to provoke resentment in lily-white circles. Neither status has been the least obstacle to Riley's development into an NHL player.

"I didn't want to do anything stupid," Riley said the other day. "I wanted to show them that I could play hockey and I didn't want to do anything to hurt the team. Sure, I was worrying whether I could make it and my first 10 games, before they gave me a pro contract, I had a cold, and that made things worse.

"But all the guys helped a lot. They were really pulling for me. Gerry Meehan was really patient with me, pointing out things. It's a good feeling to be part of the team like this."

A good feeling. That's the best way to characterize life as a Capital these days.