In four inglorious, miserable years, the Washington Capitals thought they had experienced every possible depth of despair - a 17-game losing streak, 25 and 20-game winless streaks.

Last night, in the curtain raiser to season No. 5, they accomplished something new, two defeats in one night. The rookie team's 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders was hardly cause for alarm, but what followed left official hands poised over the panic button.

The Capitals' so-called regulars, termed the best-conditioned team in hockey by Coach Tom McVie, were overwhelmed, 5-2 by hockeyt's oldest team, the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association.

Gordie Howe, 50, and John (Pie) McKenzie, 40, were among the goal scorers as the Capitals were left with pie on their faces. In the second period, the ancient Whalers whistled 19 shots on goal: the Capitals managed only six.

A section filled with members of the Whalers Booster Club emitted much noise throughout the evening: few others in the disappointing crowd of 3,000 found much to yell about.

New England broke in front when Dave Keon, 38, dropped a pass to McKenzie, who beat Washington goalie Bernie Wolfe from the right-wing circle.

Washington did not record its first shot until the 11-minute mark of the first period, by which time New England had seven. The Whalers' eighth made is 2-0, as George Lyle broke down the left side, skated past defenseman Bryan Watson and slid a backhander between Wolfe's legs.

Washington pulled within 2-1 in the second period as Swedish center Rolf Edberg won a faceoff in the Whalers' end, fired a shot on goal and then saw teammate Eddy Godin net the rebound.

Jim Bedard started out to relieve Wolfe at the midpoin tof the period. Washington's Gord Lane was sent off for trippngi at that moment, however, so Bedard returned to the bench because McVie did not want to send in a cold goalie with his team shorthanded. Wolfe yielded a goal 14 seconds later.

Gordie Howe dove into the crease to convert son Mark's pass from behind the net. Son Marty also received an assist. Mark scored twice himself before the night ended, and his second goal was an embarrassment, as the entire Washington team watched him skate down the middle and slip the puck under Bedard.

Lane closed the scoring on a long shot with 1:55 left, but by then only relatives and the somnolent remained in Hersbeypark Arena.

In the preliminary, the Capitals were forced to loan three players a perido to the Islanders, who were decimated by injuries in Washington's 7-1 victory Friday. Two Capitals, Brian Walsh and Glen Curris, scored for the opposition, providing the Islanders' victory margin.