By being worse than bad for most of five years, the Caps allowed me to blissfully ignore hockey. Benign neglect had been the excuse, although I'd felt for years that only mindless men played hockey and only ambulance chasers and the pro wrestling crowd watched it.

My feelings had been the same as a former editor: if they held the Stanley Cup in my backyard, I'd close the blinds. Any sport that gives grown men sticks and some freedom to swing them at each other should not be encouraged.

Well, at my biannual appearance at a Cap game Wednesday night, there were a few experiences that hit with slap-shot force. The first came between the first and second periods, when at least six dozen people were seen lined up in front of the advance-ticket window.

Later, recent rumors were verified. When a Cap passed the puck, there usually was a teammate waiting to receive it. Nobody whiffed. The goalie and defense were competent and, happily, the fighting intruded no more than at an ordinary Redskin game.

Then came the strangest feeling of all, when Greg Polis carried the puck between two Rangers, Faked the goalie out of position, slipped it acorss the width of the goal and into the net -- all in a space of 10 yards.

Gale Sayers might have done something comparable. Or Cousy. And assorted Canadiens. But a Washington Capital? I applauded wildly.

At last, the little devils can play.

The Caps are by no means ready to win the Stanley Cup, usually reliable sources said, but they might just be ready to make the playoffs. By ordinary NHL standards, that is not impressive. Given the Caps' lifelong history, it would be astonishing.

For more than a month, the players have been discovering wonderful things about themselves. And the most pleasant lesson has penetrated the consciousness of Robert Picard: "Do my job, concentrate on the little things, and the golas will come."

Long-suffering fans, those hardy souls who have understood and appreciated hockey and still watched the Caps, point to a Dec. 17 home game against Toronto as the time Picard began to mature. Picard said it started three days earlier, in Boston.

"We lost, 5-2," he said after the victory over New York, "but I started then to take the body" -- which is hockey lingo for "smacking" the opposition. "Before, I'd gone through the motions, and the last time Boston was here I got shoved.

"That night, I decided I'd push and shove -- and if I had to fight I would. But I didn't have to -- and I got in some good checks. And it kept going like that. I got seven or eight checks against Philadelphia."

And the points began to come in buches. As a rookie last season, Picard set the modest Capital record for goals by a defenseman: 10. In his last 17 games, Picard has 10 goals and 17 assists, a staggering total for a defender.

Of course, much has been expected of Picard, the Caps' first choice and the third selection of the entire 1977 draft. Many of the adjustments were off the ice, having to live away from home for the first time in his life.

On the ice, he was both helped and hindered by being the only exceptional player on his junior team, playing 50 to 55 minutes each game at both ends of the ice, scording two or three goals now and then, but frequently during 8-6 losses.

"He'd seen every possible situation that could develop at a young age," General Manager Max McNab said. "And he developed tremendous stamina. But he was used to being half offense and half defense.

"We wanted him to learn just to read the dictionary, that defense means to defend. He was trying to create offensive situations out of defensive situations and this league was too clever for that.

"What he had learned, basically, is what he can't do."

Picard volunteered that his second goal of the 5-1 voctory over the Rangers illustrated his change.

"Before, I'd have gone ahead, tried to ram through," he said. "This time, I passed to Stewie (Blair Stewart), got into position and waited." Stewart drew the defense toward him, dropped the puck to the open Picard -- and he whistled it into the net.

"i'd go and it wasn't time to go before," he said. "Or I wouldn't go and it was time. Now I do the little things and wait."

The other Caps also are blending well -- and grateful for a hot goalie (Gary Inness) to overcome their mistakes, although Picard said of the Ranger game: "We stopped more plays at the blue line than ever before."

Picard rarely has been timid, although McNab said: "He has the sort of charisma that makes a crowd what to forgive his mistakes. He and Ryan Walters are two kids who simply want to be the best at their position.

"Some players just want to be National Leaguers, a steady career. Those two want to be superior."

So it hardly was surprising that when Picard was reminded he already had set a Cap scording record for defensemen, he replied: "I probably have 15 years to go. I'll probably break a few more."