National Hockey League executives, who have been concerned all week about a possible loss of prestige, hardly worked up a sweat tonight. Their all-stars sweated considerably in steamy Madison Square Garden, but it was from the honest hard work that stymied the Soviet national team, 4-2, in the opener of the three-game Challenge Cup series.

A goal by Montreal's Guy Lafleur, after just 16 seconds, sent the NHL ahead to stay and the only complaint the crowd of 17,438 could find with the home team was the limited ice time allotted to Ranger heroes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.

Chants of "We want Ulf" resounded through the Garden during a third period in which the NHL merely lay back on defense to avoid the mistakes that might bring the Soviets back to life.

"Our team played much below its capacity," Soviet Coach Viktor Tikhonov said through an interpreter, "particularly the lines of Mr. (Vladimir) Petrov and Mr. (Viktor) Zhluktov."

Mr. Petrov and companions, Boris Mikhailov and Valeri Kharlamov, were overpowered by the New York Islanders' line of Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.

Mr. Zhluktov and heralded wingers Halmut Balderis and Sergei Kapustin were neutralized by the superb checking of Montreal's Bob Gainey and Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber.

It was not exciting hockey the NHL displayed in this first match for the championship of the universe, but it was certainly effective.

"Most of their plays go up the middle, so you have to cut the center off on them and forecheck like hell," Clarke said.

"I think a lot of people thought we'd spend the night chasing them around," said Gillies, who delivered the game's heaviest hits. "But we did skate well with them. We were able to take the body against them and I don't think they expected it."

The Soviets hardly expected what happened to them in the first 16 seconds. The game had started 23 minutes late, following three anthems and other ceremonies that prompted the Soviets to scoop up ice chips to cool off. But when it finally got going, the NHL stars wasted no more time.

The visitors, who appeared to be trying to rough it up without really knowing how, were betrayed when defensemen Gennadi Tsygankov and Sergei Starikov skated into each other while trying to check Clarke. The NHL captain then slipped a pass to his right, where Lafleur was open. Goalie Vladislav Tretiak dived out to try to poke the puck away, but Lafleur sent it into the vacated net.

"On the first shift your basic idea is to get some pressure in their end and get a couple of shots if you can," Clarke said. "You don't want to start off playing in your own zone."

Very little of the first two periods was played in NHL ice, thanks to effective forechecking that repeatedly broke up the Soviets' maneuvers.

In the seventh minute, with the Soviets shorthanded, Buffalo's Gil Perreault broke down the middle and attracted both Soviet defensemen, Vasili Pervukhin and Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. A quick drop pass left Bossy open for an easy score.

Half a minute later, the NHL appeared to boost its margin to 3-0, as a slap shot by Colorado's Barry Beck deflected into the net off Barber's skate. Referee Bob Myers waved it off, ruling that Barber had directed the puck in with his skate.

The Soviets' first shot came on a power play after 9 1/2 minutes and their first goal resulted from an extra-man maneuver, at 11:25, as Mikhailov netted a rebound of a rare Soviet slap shot by Valeri Vasilyev.

Before the first period ended, Gainey made it 3-1 by cutting down the right side and firing the puck over Tretiak's left shoulder, although Starikov was draped over him as he shot.

Gillies knocked Tsygankov around behind the Soviet net in the second period and the veteran defenseman lost his cool, making a horrible pass onto Bossy's stick. Bossy then fed Gillies, who had drifted in front and beat Tretiak with a backhander to make it 4-1.

Vladimir Golikov hit an empty net early in the third period after goalie Ken Dryden of Montreal had been caught in a pileup blocking a shot by Alexander Golikov. There was no alarm from NHL adherents, however, and none was warranted.

NHL Coach Scotty Bowman dressed only four defensemen, who went the route, pairing Montreal's Larry Robinson with Borje Salming of Toronto and Beck with Montreal's Serge Savard.

That meant a seat in the stands for Washington's Robert Picard, who said, "I'm a little surprised, but I'm not complaining. I'm proud just to be here. They told me to watch very closely tonight, come out to practice tomorrow and we'll see about Saturday. That's what I'm going to do."