At Fort Dupont yesterday, verteran goaltenders Gary Inness and Wayne Stephenson occupied the nets, each wearing a red Washington Capitals road jersey adorned with No. 1. Occasionally, each was spelled by an unfamiliar figure clad in an orange pull-over, using ancient pads that twice required emergency repair.

Tonight at Capital Centre, newcomer Rollie Boutin will be wearing that No. 1 as he guards the Capitals' nets against the New York Rangers in a 7:30 contest. It is a great opportunity for Boutin. It is a crucial moment also for the Capitals, who have won only one of their last 16 games.

"We brought Rollie up for a purpose and unless I change my mind, which is unlikely, he'll be starting," said Capital Coach Gary Green. "Rollie has been playing so well down there (at Hershey) that he does deserve it. We're given everybody else a chance and now he's getting one, too.

"I also felt we had to do something to shake the situation up. I've got a lot of confidence in Wayne and Gary and it's not that they've played really badly, but I do feel they haven't come up with the big saves when we really need them, especially at the start of the game."

In the Capitals' most recent home game, Inness was beaten on Minnesota's first two shots and the North Stars won, 5-4. In the previous home game, Stephenson yielded three goals in the first 9 1/2 minutes to Pittsburgh, which eventually prevailed, 5-3.

The 22-year-old Boutin was recalled Thursday and he arrived with impressive credentials, a 2.48 goals-against average and an 11-2 record. Those are remarkable figures, considering the way the Capitals have decimated Hershey's personnel and the fact that one of the losses came on technical grounds, Jim Bedard departing with a 4-0 deficit and Boutin yielding the final New Haven score in a 5-4 result.

"I haven't had to face too many shots, because everybody has just pulled together real well," Boutin said. "The guys have just worked harder, they've kept the other teams pretty well clear of the slot and they've made it easy for me."

Such modesty is commendable, but McNab had another view. "He's retained his composure no matter what. The personnel in front of him has been constantly changing and we went in and plucked out their two best defensemen, but it hasn't fazed him. He's been a model of consistency, home and away. He's been absolutely sensational. He just hasn't lost."

That was in the American League, however, and the NHL is a big step up. Boutin made a brief appearance with the Capitals last year, playing 30 scoreless minutes in St. Louis and then being blasted in Los Angeles, 10-2. He knows it will not be easy.

"You can't just step in here and play great," Boutin said. "You have to adjust to the quickness of the game and the difficulty of shots. I have a lot to learn and a lot of things I have to work on."

Still, Hershey goalies have a way of jumping into the NHL wars and earning quick battle stars. Don Edwards was called to Buffalo in 1977 and played immediately, a move that prompted veteran Al Smith to quit right after the warmup one night. Edwards has never looked back and is considered one of the NHL's best.

Later that year, Bedard came to Washington from Hershey and wound up posting a 3.66 average in 43 games, the best ever by a Capital goalie. Somewhere, however. Bedard lost the touch and is currently performing as Edmonton chattel for Cincinnati in the Central League.

"I hope I can come right in and play well," Boutin said. "Time will tell. The goalies they have here are very good. I'm sure they aren't the reason why the team in having problems."

Not the reason, but certainly one of several. To further neutralize the principal difficulty, loss of players to injury, both defenseman Pierre Bouchard and center Guy Charron are expected to return tonight.

"They'll have to hold me back to keep me away any more," said Bouchard, who has played only four games, the most recent Nov. 2 in Winnipeg, when he suffered a separation of the collarbone and breast bone.

"I'll probably play," said Charron, idle since Dec. 1 while nursing an aggravation of an earlier muscle pull in his right thigh. "I won't know for sure until tomorrow. I want to be certain it feels all right."