After Tom Rowe collected 31 goals last season to become an instant trivia topic as the highest-scoring American in National Hockey League history, it seemed natural to expect him to raise his target to 40 or 50. Nothing, however, is farther from his mind.

"I haven't really set any goals (for goals) this year," the Washington Capitals' hardest shooter said. "I want to work on the defensive part of my game. It took me two years to get confidence offensively and get down what I had to do. Now I'm working hard on being a two-way player.

"There are a lot of goal scorers in this league, but this team needs two-way guys, like Bob Sirois and Guy Charron, if we're going to get in the playoffs.

"It's unbelievable the enthusiasm everybody is showing. Everybody is thinking playoffs. I don't think there's a team we can't beat, including Montreal. We have enough talent and enough goal scorers.

"Before, there were teams we figured it was impossible to beat. Some games we just went out and hoped something would happen. Now everybody is psyched on getting the year going."

It was a pretty speech and it had all the proper thoughts for a team-oriented player. There were memories, however, of a year ago, with Rowe skating all over the ice in helter-skelter fashion, and there was skepticism that he had really changed. He quickly indicated that he had.

In his first three games for the once-beaten governors in the training-camp President's Cup competition, Rowe set upt two goals and scored a third with a patented blast through the goaltender's pads.

One assist resulted from a remarkable pass to Robert Picard while the Governors were skating three men against four. Another Rowe pass was so slick it fooled the intended receiver. Additionally, he displayed up-and-down diligence for team that allowed only two goals in the three games.

It has taken Rowe a long time to adjust from his school days in Lynn, Mass., where he roamed all over the ice in search of goals.

"I was behind in the matter of playing the position when I went to Canada to play junior," Rowe said. "Back home, it was strictly individual play and I had a reputation for being hungry. I was at least a year behind the other guys."

There was some surprise that the Capitals drafted Rowe as high as the third round in 1976, but he has shown steady progress and his potential was obvious from the first time he stepped on NHL ice in Boston. He scored a goal on his first shift.

Rowe claims much of the credit for that 31-goal season must go to center Dennis Maruk, acquired from Minnesota in October.

"When I left home last year, I said I'd be happy with 16 to 20 goals,: Rowe said. "Then the club got Dennis. I had played with him in junior and I knew if you let him carry the puck, you would get all kinds of chances.

"Any winger with Dennis will be productive. When he gets the puck, everybody on the other team panics and it leaves you open a lot."

Rowe took advantage of the openings and this summer at Lake Placid the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States presented him a clock decorated with a gold plaque outlining his accomplishment.

"People I didn't even know came up to me on the street during the summer and talked to me about it" Rowe said. "Everybody was really nice about it."

The rest of Roew's summer was taken up with, running, swimming and bicycle riding, to strengthen his left knee. He suffered stretched ligaments late last season and surgery was considered, but ruled out. Evidence this far indicates Rowe is almost as fast as ever, and considerably smarter.

The busy Montreal trade-rumor mills predict that the Capitals will trade Pierre Bouchard to Quebec for Gerry Hart . . . Center Rolf Edberg missed tonight's game with a sprained ankle ... Goalie Jim Bedard did not play, either, after a shot struck him in the groin as he warmed up at the midpoint . . . Rowe's right eyelid was carved up by goalie Rollie Boutin's stick . . . Owner Abe Pollin was a visitor today and gave the team another pep talk . . . The President's Cup, a decorated milk can, will be presented after today's 6 p.m. championship game.