The last time the New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup playoffs, in 1975, they were first-round victims of the New York Islanders. Since that sudden-death execution, there has been one standard battle cry at Madison Square Garden: "Re-fund."

The Rangers come to Capital Centre tonight to play the Washington Capitals and they will find themselves in another arena of discontent. Washington's home-ice record of 7-18-5 is the NHL's worst and it is one of the seven wonders of the sports world that attendance is the highest in the team's four-year history.

Washington fans boo the team's power play almost from habit, shower demeaning nicknames on certain unloved players and wonder aloud why the nightly pass-interception rate exceeds that Norman Snead in his worst football season. They haven't reached the "Re-fund" stage but they respond happily to the slightest crumb of encouragement.

"We all sit there and die a little bit," said team President Peter O'Malley. "We all went into this season with great expectations. It's tough on everybody. We probably don't have the right, but it is tough on management, too.

"I'm getting the usual comments one would expect. I get letters in the mail on a fairly regular basis and I talk with fans at the Centre. There is more discontent than in the past and I think it's justified.

"The majority offer support and encouragement. They have suggestions, many in regard to player moves. I consider them a loyal group of fans interested in helping the team. I'm glad they care enough to be upset."

O'Malley insists he has maintained his cool regardless of the suggestions put forth, although a reporter received a snappish, "Of course not," when he asked O'Malley if he was contemplating refunds after the second period of a game in which the Capitals trailed Detroit, 6-1.

A fan leaving the building after Sunday's 6-1 loss to Philadelphia suggested that perhaps Coach Tom McVie should be the next Capital consigned to Hershey and moaned that he wouldn't come to the Centre except that he was saddled with season tickets. He claims O'Malley "angrily" offered to give him an on-the-spot refund.

"I was being facetious," O'Malley responded. "It was just give and take. I wasn't the least bit angry. You know, I wouldn't be surprised if I said 'Good night' and somebody took it the wrong way."

If only O'Malley could foresee Capital goals with such accuracy. As he left Capital Centre Tuesday, surrounded by rare expressions of pleasure after the 7-4 rout of Colorado, O'Malley responded to a lady's smile with a smile of his own and a syrupy "Good night."

The woman's facial expression changed to a scowl, her husband immediately rushed over and demanded to know what was going on and only a quick introduction and explanation convinced him that O'Malley was not attempting a pickup.

Pierce Gardner, the Capital's public-relations director, thinks most of the disgruntled fans are just looking for someone to hold their hand.

"People call all the time, complaining about the players, the officials, the other team," Gardner said. "We listen to them and by the time they hang up they're happy. They're frustrated and they want to talk to somebody about it. We can understand it. We're frustrated, too."

The Capitals are offering 5,000 free backpacks to youngsters 14 and under attending tonight's game. Gardner insists it is not a subtle hint to disgruntled fans to "take a hike." But somebody undoubtedly will interpret it that way.