Joe O'Loughlin, who chauffeurs the Washington Capitals between Capital Centre and area airports, is blessed with a rapier-like wit, a necessity to survive the verbal abuse that descends upon him from the back of the bus.

Told by an airport officer in Baltimore last week to drive onto the runway, O'Loughlin thought he was merely receiving unsolicited advice from his usual tormentors and shot back, "I'd like to, but there's a building in the way."

Momentarily taken aback when the officer reiterated his command, O'Loughlin said, "I thought it was a hockey player. If you start listening to hockey players, you'll turn into a puck."

To avoid that fate, O'Loughlin pays little attention to his critics. On another occasion, however, his principal backseat driver, Wayne Stephenson, hit a nerve by nothing that the bus had just been passed by a boat -- under tow, of course.

"You should have played goal before they wore masks," O'Loughlin griped.

"I did," Stephenson replied.

Frederick Wayne Stephenson has been a goalie longer than most of his teammates have been alive, starting out in the 1950s, when his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, was still divided, into Stephenson's turf in Fort William and the guys across the tracks in Port Arthur.

Stephenson recently celebrated his 35th birthbay, which makes him nine years older than Coach Gary Green and 15 years the senior of the club's high scorer, Mike Gartner.

During those 35 years, Stephenson has been consigned to oblivion as often as the legendary cat begins a new life, most recently right here in Washington.

The St. Louis Blues decided a second-round draft choice and a guy named Randy Andreachuk offered more promise than the current hero of Capitalmaniacs. Then the Philadelphia Flyers ushered Stephenson to the backseat whenever Bernie Parent was able to stand between the pipes without wincing.

Last spring, the Flyers flushed Stephenson without the redeeming presence of Parent. They chose, instead, to depart the playoffs in the company of untried Robbie Moore. Then they offered Stephenson around the league and shouted "Sold" at the first nibble, a third-round draft choice offered by Washington.

Early in the present season, while Coach Danny Belisle stubbornly kept Stephenson in the net and the goals-against average bounded between 4 and 5, Capital camp followers were routinely cornered by experts in each league city and informed, in almost always the same words, "Why are they using Stephenson? I could have told them he's washed up."

Finally, despite management's current protestations to the contrary, the Capitals joined the club. After 11 days of inactivity, Stephenson dropped a 5-4 decision to Hartford Dec. 19. With a 3-12-3 record and a 4.08 goals-against mark, Stephenson was cast on the scrapheap. He still practiced with the team, but it would have taken a mere phone call from any other club in the league and Stephenson would have been sent packing, postage paid.

Rollie Boutin was the hero then, starting 10 straight games and winning more often than he lost. It was apparent, however, that somebody would have to fill in occasionally, and both Stephenson and Gary Inness were hardly refining their skills on the bench and in the stands.

The decision was made to groom Inness for the backup role. He played the exhibition against Moscow Dynamo, then was shipped to Hershey for two weeks to get some work so he would be prepared to fill in for Boutin.

While Inness was off in the hinterlands, however, Boutin took a bad beating in Philadelphia, yielding seven goals on only 20 shots. With seven minutes left, to save the rookie further embarrassment, Green sent Stephenson into the net. Under no pressure and following a 27-day layoff, Stephenson stopped all seven shots he faced.

It was then that the schedule came to Stephenson's rescue. Had there been opportunity for Boutin to rest and regain his confidence, he probably would have returned for the next game. However, the Capitals played Edmonton at home the following night, so Green called on Stephenson, who played well in a 5-2 loss.

The Capitals' next foe was Philadelphia. Green kept Boutin away from his previous tormentors and used Stephenson again, to good effect despite that depressing 4-4 tie.

The following week, Stephenson enjoyed back-to-back one-goal games against Quebec and the New York Islanders. Suddenly, as Boutin floundered, Stephenson became the No. 1 goalie. Inness came back to find himself with no role at all.

Stephenson, despite painful back problems and countless bruises inflicted by opposition marksmen, has started 27 of the Capitals' last 29 games. He has won 14 of them, becoming the first Washington goalie to win 17 games in a season, and his goals-against mark during that stretch is a creditable 3.24.

"I think it probably takes half a season to become adjusted to a new team," Stephenson said. "There's a lot more to playing goal than just standing there and stopping pucks. It takes a while to learn your teammates' moves, what they're likely to do."

There is still some question about how the younger Capitals will respond to the pressure of the playoff chase as the screws tighten. Nobody is concerned about Stephenson, however. Anyone who can rise from the discard pile so frequently, and so capably, can handle it.

The next test comes Saturday night and the Flyers, who played such a key role in Stephenson's ups and downs, are the opposition, the last team the Capitals never have beaten.

"We have to beat them somewhere along the line and it will be good to get it over," Stephenson said. "But we can't say we're playing Philly, or Colorado, or anybody else. We just have to take each game, no matter who we play, and go out and win."