Goalie Wayne Stephenson, who had played one period of hockey in 38 days, started for the Philadelphia Flyers last night at Capital Centre. If the Flyers were showcasing him for a possible trade, the phones should be ringing off the hook.

The Capitals matched a team record by firing 43 shots at Stephenson and lost, 5-2. By midpoint, before the Capitals ran out of steam, the shot figures were 29-10 -- and the Flyers were leading anyway, 3-2.

Guy Charron, who set a Washington record by casting 13 shots at Stephenson, scored one goal and assisted Robert Picard on the other. Picard, with two points, joined the record-setting consolation corps by scoring in his 10th straight game. Tommy Williams had set the Washington mark of nine in year one.

"There's no doubt Stephenson was the key player of the game," Charron said."We played well enough to beat the Flyers. We made a couple of mistakes that cost us, but we had enough shots to be ahead in that game. If we get 44 shots or whatever against teams in our league, I guarantee we'll be over.500.

"Maybe we were a little too eager when we got behind 2-0. That's like climbing a mountain and finding yourself on the bottom again. But I think we played a hell of a second period and unfortunately goaltender Wayne Stephenson played extremely well."

Stephenson, who last played Dec. 16 and had not started a game since Dec. 7, tripped over a guy wire as he went to pick up his morning paper Monday and took a chunk out of his hand. It fazed him no more than his brilliant performance.

"I got away with a lot," Stephenson said. "I wasn't that sharp. But a lot of times I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I just went out and did what I had to do. Hell, I missed a goal."

Most goaltenders, a breed apart from the rest of humanity, are unhappy after anything except a shutout. Stephenson has been unhappy anyway, because of his long periods of idleness.

"As long as I play, I'm happy," he said. "If they stop playing me, I can't afford to be happy. They (the Flyer management) have declared their lines of war and mine are declared, too."

Most Capitals-Flyers games resemble warfare, but this one was almost devoid of foul play. In fact, the only real fight took place among the 10,267 fans, and the loser needed help to leave the arena.

Rick MacLeish sent the Flyers in front after just 1 minute 54 seconds of Philadelphia pressure, beating Gary Inness with a 40-footer while defenseman - turned - wing Rick Lapointe used his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame as an effective screen.

After Washington's Gord Smith was penalized for hooking Mel Bridgman, the Flyer power play converted its first of three scores. Dennis Ververgaert produced it on a deflection of a Bob Dailey slap shot.

The Capitals' frustration, which peaked when Yvon Labre slammed a shot off a goal post, was eased when Picard netted a 55-footer after Charron outdrew MacLeish on a faceoff in the Flyers' end.

An interference penalty on Washington's Gary Rissling, for dumping Tom Gorence away from the puck, was followed only seven seconds later by Reg Leach's pinpoint shot from the right-wing circle. The puck found the tiny hole Inness could not cover in the upper corner.

Despite the 3-1 deficit, the Caps came out flying in the second period and at one time enjoyed a 19-3 edge in shots. Charron had his 11th of the game by the 10-minute mark, but the only one that got through was a power-play rocket from the right-wing circle after Stephenson had made a remarkable series of saves.

Late in the period, the Capitals were reduced by two men as Picard tripped Dave Hoyda and Labre broke his stick slashing Bobby Clarke, who had slipped behind him with the puck. Bill Barber connected from the left point, marking the first time in eight such two-man deficits that the Caps had yielded a goal.

Leach wrapped up the scoring in the third period with his 21st goal, a bullet down the slot, but by then the Capitals were so tired they were banging into each other.

With both Rick Green and Pete Scamurra nursing knee injuries, Picard was asked to play even more than usual. About his only chance to rest came during his tripping penalty.

"He made a statement one time, and I read it in the papers, that he likes to play 50 or 55 minutes a game," said Coach Danny Belisle. "He's playing super and we're short. I guess we'll have to rest him 20 hours and just play him in games. He'll be down to Racing Form weight or whatever."

Belisle refused to praise Stephenson, instead criticizing his own players for teeing up the puck before shooting it.

"When you have the puck in front of the net, you have to stop an extra second and take a peek," Belisle said. "If he's down, you put it up. If he's up, you put in one the ice. We had too many guys who were just shooting."