Gordie Howe, who will celebrate his 52nd birthday March 31, comes to Capital Centre tonight to play his 2,362nd major-league hockey game. During a career that began in 1946, Howe has collected 1,064 goals and 1,499 assists.

Those are remarkable statistics, unmatched in the history of the sport. Perhaps even more incredible is the fact that in 23 games this season for the Hartford Whalers, Howe has nine goals and eight assists.

By contrast, the Washington Capital's leading goal scorer is 23-year-old Tom Rowe with the same total, nine. The Capital's top point man, 21-year-old Bengt Gustafsson, has 18, one more than Howe.

On his last visit to Capital Centre, for an October exhibition game, Howe was introduced as a starter along with his sons. Marty and Mark. The family is no longer intact, since Marty was farmed to Springfield, where he suffered a broken wrist.

Gordie has vowed that this will be his final season, but he has made the same statement almost annually since 1973, when he first came out of retirement to join Houston of the World Hockey Association.

"The thought of giving it up for good is terrible," Howe said. "Just the thought that it has to end some time is terrible."

Meanwhile, the Capitals are wondering if their terrbile stretch of injuries will ever end. The club has been reduced to 17 reasonably healthy players and the Hershey farm club is too decimated to supply further replacements.

General Manager Max McNab is in a dilemma, trying to obtain a couple of bodies without being forced to give up valuable draft choices for potential minor leaguers.

"People of reasonable caliber that would help here are pretty limited," McNab said. "Clubs are reluctant to give up their top minor leaguers, who are their future first recalls, except for a pretty high draft-choice price.

"You have to deal from strength. When you are forced to deal from personnel weakness, they try to stiff you. I've been on the phone for two days and the few guys you can get don't figure to be worth anything when our injured players are healthy."

McNab conceded, however, that something would have to be done soon. With Hershey idle tonight, right wing Tony Cassolato and center Claude Noel were called up on a one game basis. They cannot stay, however, since both teams have Friday-Saturday commitments.

There is a chance that some of the team's eight-man corps of wounded will become available this week, ahead of schedule. Guy Charron, Rolf Edberg, Peter Schamurra and Pierre Bouchard will be examined by Dr. Pat Palumbo this afternoon.

Rowe, struck on the foot by a puck during Sunday's 2-0 loss to Buffalo, is questionable tonight, although X-rays were negative. He was limping with a severe bone bruise and his availability will be determined at this morning's practice.

An obvious possibility for emergency duty is Dennis Hextall, who has been scouting future opponents.

"We may have to reevaluate Dennis' situation, depending on whether Guy (Charron) is in or out," McNab said. "The scouting aspect is a very important one, but we cannot allow the players out there to become so tired that they're vulnerable to injury."

Rick Green and Robert Picard, 40-minute-plus performers in Buffalo, managed a few gags about the extra duty.

"I wish I got paid by the minute; I'd be able to retire soon," joked Picard, his left arm bruised by Gil Perreault's stick.

"At those rates, I wouldn't have to play long either," agreed Green, his ankle bruised by a puck. "But you had it easy, Pic. You were in the penalty box twice."