Capital defenseman Rpbert Picard didn't hesitate when he asked if he would do anything differently, given the "opportunity to relive his first season in the National Hockey League.

"I wouldn't get into trouble with Quebec," said Picard, who signed first with the Capitals last year and then with Quebec of the World Hockey Association. A judge subsquently ruled Picard's contract with the Capitals binding.

"That was part of my problem at the beginning, people yelling at me, 'Go back to Quebec.' It was not only the fans, but the players, too, from other teams.

"My own teammates? They're super guys. I had heard that everywhere they start something between the veterans and rookies. Here everybody is the same. You're a player on the team. At the beginning, they picked on me, but it was in fun. We always do kid around. You have to make fun sometimes."

Injured in an exhibition game at Quebec, where the two clubs enjoyed standing-room-only exploitation of Picard's dual signing, the young defenseman did not play his first NHL game until Oct. 24. His first goal did not come until Dec. 7. It was a bewildering experience for the hero of the Montreal Juniors, one of the coveted stars of the last amateur draft.

"The beginning was very hard," Picard said. "I learned that everybody has to work all the time. You can't be on cruise control. You have to be alert every day. Now that I have a little more experience, I'm not as nervous with the puck. I've settled down and I don't panic any more. It's easier to make the plays if I don't panic.

"I found out you can't do it yourself. You have to help others, move the puck and get it back to break in the open. The last month has been easier."

Ordered off the ice at a December practice session by exasperated Coach Tom McVie, Picard broke his stick over the glass and stormed out.Yet he readily admits McVie's discipline was a key to his development.

"He helped me a lot, particularly in my becoming more mature," Picard said. "I had to learn to just listen to the man instead of kicking around and arguing. I found out I couldn't fool around anymore like I used to in junior. You have to practice here or the game won't go as good. The man helped me a lot all year."

McVie thinks that Picard's early difficulties were a disguised blessing.

"He was better off developing the way he did," McVie said, "rather than coming into the league and being a good player from day one. That would not have been good for Robert Picard. I got the feeling he thought he could. The things that worked in junior, he tried the same things in this league, and he found out he had a lot to learn.

"He still has a lot of learning to do, but he knows that now. He knows that you just don't show up for the game. He was doing a lot of things wrong and he's not especially quick about learning to change, but once he does get something down, no matter how many times he has to be told, he doesn't make that mistake agian."

Picard has collected 10 goals and 22 assists, not flowery figures for someone who recorded 92 points in his final junior season. But four of the goals were game winners, another created a last-minute tie in St. Louis and both the goal and point totals are club records for a defenseman.

Sunday, when admires posted a huge sign reading "Le Bonheur Est Robert Picard," the youngster brought both himself and his fans the promised happiness with a goal that ignited the Capitals' comeback in a most satisfying 4-4 tie with Montreal.

"He should level out as a 15-to-17-goal man," said General Manager Max McNab. "He has a tendency to pull his shot a bit, but he does have a good shot. It's a matter of direction. He's in position to get enough shots, and that's encouraging. We have been in our own end quite a bit, and that has affected his overall play.

"I'm satisfied with his progress. He started pressing a bit. When the team would fall behind, he acted as if he was going to get them back all by himself. But I think he's come on very well. He's a good asset. He's not a candidate as rookie of the year, but over the next two or three years he could be one of the best."

Besides the taunts of opponents, Picard had to cope with deprecating remarks from some old friends on the Capitals' trips to his native Montreal. He handled them with ease.

"I can answer them back," Picard said "I tell them that I'm in the National Hockey League, and they have to get up at 6 in the morning and go to work. I'm really proud about playing in the NHL. And I know a lot of my friends talk about having a buddy in the NHL. They know how hard I worked for it. A couple of years ago, they'd be going out and they'd ask me along and I'd say no, because the hockey came first."

Hockey has always been first, in a family where his uncle, Noel, played in the NHL, and his father, Gilles, and uncle, Roger, were junior coaches. Picard was not about to let a lifelong ambition be destroyed by those early-season problems, the injuries (broken hand, broken nose, etc.), the books, the opposition's terror tactics and the general lack of success.

"The other teams were testing me, at least until Christmas," Picard said. "Not too many have been bothering me since in my corner of the ice. I don't go in for laughing. At the beginning I was only a rookie to be wind up on, but now they know they'll wind up on their butt."

Tuesday night, in the 4-4 tie with Boston, Picard collected three assists. He also made a move past Baston defenseman Dennis O'Brien that left the fans gasping. It was not a junior leftover and, even if goalie Ron Grahame was able to stop Picard's shot, he gained increased respect from a number of areas, including the Washington bench.

"He showed me something with that move through the Boston team," McVie said. "If that's just an indication of what we're in for, I'd like to be around to see the rest of it. That's another reason why it's sort of disappointing to see the year coming to an end. It means that the improvement in Robert Picard will stop for a while. But he's really going to do things for this franchise."

Buffalo visits Capital Centre tonight at 7:30, laboring under a four-game losing streak, the Sabres' longest since January 1974 . . . Washington's only success in a 1-16-2 series came by 4-2 in Buffalo last season . . . The Sabres have collected six short-handed goals and eight hat tricks, including two four-goal games by Richard Martin, in their dealings with the Capitals . . . Buffalo's Craig Ramsay leads the NHL in shorthanded scores with five; not coincidentally, the Capitals have yielded a league high of 15 . . . Washington captain Yvon Labre is expected to play despite a bruised thigh muscle suffered against Montreal.