The Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens meet tonight for the 22nd time. Montreal won the 21 previous noncontests, by a combined score of 135-29.

The Capitals are alone in their complete failure against the champions, although other teams share their frustration. In 38 regular-season games over eight seasons, Vancouver has beaten the Canadiens once. The New York Islanders, who may be No. 2 in the NHL pecking order, have prevailed over Montreal only four times in 27 regular-season contests in six years.

In no other sport do the haves so consistently defeat the have-nots. Lack of a competitive aspect to many games is a principal reason why teams like the Capitals are known as "seat cleaners" in many NHL cities. Season ticket-holders boycott their visits, leaving ushers to direct grateful kids and neighbors to unfamiliar seats.

"I think the National Hockey League Should be concerned about something like this," Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero said after his Flyers had shackled the Capitals on their own ice during the greater part of a boring 4-1 Philadelphia victory a month ago.

The NHL can't be excessively concerned, however, because it has moved only through a long-range equalization draft of dubious value to provide help for the noncompetitors of the league.

In setting the expansion terms, the NHL permitted its member clubs to protect 15 players before losing one. That wasn't too bad for the original group of six expansion teams in 1967, since they began by choosing hockey's No. 91st player. By the time Washington came into existence in 1974, however, the first choice amounted to the NHL's 241st player, and a lot of other goods ones were by then in the World Hockey Association.

The Canadiens have been hockey's dominant team since the NHL began in 1917, utilising territorial claims and junior sponsorships to achieve initial superiority. Eventually, the NHL abandoned its direct junior farm system and, beginning in 1969, all players in the world of qualifying age became eligible for an amateur draft.

It was supposed to equalize competition, and in some cases, notably Philadelphia and the Islanders, teams were able to prosper with good, young talent. As these clubs were moving up, however, the Canadiens in no way were moving down.

Expansion teams like Minnesota, California and Los Angeles had seats to fill. They couldn't wait for potential superstars to develop, so they traded No. 1 draft choices to Montreal for good players who could help immediately.

As a result, the current Montreal roster contains 11 first-round draft picks, plus four holdovers from the old sponsorship rule who would have been likely No. 1's if exposed to a draft. The Capitals have two first-rounders, Rick Green and Robert Picard.

In addition to possessing first-class talent, the Canadiens are able yo send most of their players to Nova Scotia for a year or two of seasoning in pro hockey and the Montreal system. then they move up to fill the holes created by aging players.

For further incentive, a couple of extra players are always around, alternating press-box duty with those who may give only a 90 per cent performance. And every once in a while, a player is shipped elsewhere, in exchange for those draft choices. In 1974, the Canadiens wound up with five picks in the first round. It would take a poor judge of talent not to find some plums among such a selection. Montreal General Manager Sam Pollock is an excellent judge of talent.

The is rarely any need for Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman to school a player in the Canadians' system. Of the present roster, only Pieere Larouche has ever played for another NHL team.

In other cities, and the New York Rangers are an obvious example, it is possible for a winner to become a fat cat. In Montreal, even if he should survive the criticism of the knowledgeable and emotional fans, he would soon find himself playing elsewhere.

Although the Canadiens' games are not always sellouts, the team's coffers are filled by television money and playoff receipts. In addition Canadien salaries are lower than with many other teams because everybody wants to play for the Canadiens. Guy Lafleur, for example, earns $100,000 a year. He could easily command $300,000 elsewhere.

How can a team like Washington compete with this machine?

The first step is to stay away from Pollock and his tempting sweets. He's like to have Picard and would part with a couple of good players, but it is with a couple of good players, but it is men with the potential of Picard around whom good teams are built.

"The best trades with Montreal are the ones you don't make," said St. Louis General Manager Emile Francis. "You can't give up your future for the sake of filling a couple of thousand empty seats now."

Washington can keep its draft choices and hope it drafts well, but it cannot afford the luxury of development in the minor leagues. Its players must learn the hard way and in the case of someone like Greg Joly, the pressure may prove too great. Management and fans can reduce that pressure by realizing the situation and lowering expectations, but that is not an easy accomplishment.

Even Caps owner Abe Pollin, contemplating tonight's game (WDCA-TV20 at 8 p.m.), said "I'm always that stupid optimist who thinks we can beat them."

Coach Tom McVie thought hard work could do the job, but he has conceded that it's not enough.

"When I first got here, I thought I could turn the team around overnight," McVie said. "You can work extra hard, but it takes talent. Determination, drive and desire, all those intangibles, are important. But you've got to have talent, too,"

In the 1950s, Montreal and Detroit dominated the NHL, while the Rangers and Chicago were the dregs. Yet the bottom teams often beat the top cats and it wasn't just because they met more often.

"There wasn't as much excuse in those days," said Washington General Manager Max McNab, who played for the high-flying Red Wings. "The teams were closer on talent. I don't recall a situation where the top club couldn't have used the one-two-three-four players from one of the bottom clubs. They always had three or four who could play with Detriot or Montreal. I don't see that many on St. Louis, Minnesota or Washington who could crack the Montreal lineup."

Except for a Picard if he were to have seasoning in Nova Scotia, there probably isn't a single Capital who could play for the Canadiens. With a talent gap like that, there isn't much chance for the Caps.

"Certainly the most frustrating part of our life is the teams we haven't been able to beat," McNab said. "Our opponents just don't relax. The old teams learned their lesson pretty good. The new teams won more games during the first year of expansion than they did the second. The better clubs werere games than they did the second. The better clubs were no longer taking any chances, throwing in second-line players, or just relaxing. They still aren't."

It has been suggested that the Capitals turn to the open market and bid for free-agent talent, but that is not so simple as it sounds.When Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson of the WHA Winnipeg Jets went dollar hunting, they specified that they would play for one of only three NHL teams, regardless of the money involved.

Washington was not among the three.

The Capitals supposedly were among the bidders for ailing Bobby Orr when he was preparing to leave Boston. But Orr, who had bad knees, was not about to join an expansion club, where he would immediately become a target for opposition checkers.

Picard, Bob Sirois and Guy Charron have absorbed a fearful beating from opponents who realize they represent most of the Washington offense. If the draft proves productive, there may be couple more players to share the punishment next season. In five years, there may be so many it will be impossible to concentrate on any one Cap. Then the Capitals will be competitive, and they might even beat Montreal.

But not tonight.

Sirois, Washington's second-leading scorer, and Dave Forbes will miss the game. Sirois has a sprained wrist and Forbes a sore shoulder.