The Washington Capitals will dress either four or five newcomers tonight when they open their seventh National Hockey League season at Capital Centre against the Winnipeg Jets.

The game starts at 8:05.

It is ironic that Coach Gary Green, who put a set lineup on the ice the first day of training camp and made only one adjustment -- at left wing on the fourth line -- should reach opening night with unanswered questions.

The doubts arise from the status of left wing Bob Kelly, officially suspended for the first three games for being labeled the first man off the bench in last week's all-hands brawl against Philadelphia.

Brian O'Neill, NHL executive vice president, came to the Centre yesterday for a two-hour hearing on the Capitals' appeal of Kelly's sentence. O'Neill watched videotapes, heard testimony from several witnesses, including Kelly, then took the matter "under advisement." He flew to Boston for further descussion last night with the officials of the Philadelphia game, referee Ron Harris and linesmen Gord Broseker and Kevin Collins.

O'Neill said the principal area of unresolved contentioninvolved "the question of origination and extent of the altercation."

The delay in resolving the Kelly situation left the Capitals in a holding pattern. Should Kelly's suspension be upheld, Washington was set to call up a forward from the Hershey farm team. Green said it could be just about anyone, because he was considering the option to move either Jean Pronovost or Bengt Gustafsson from right wing to the left side, already reduced by the dispatch of fourth-liner Torrie Robertson to Victoria of the Western Junior League.

A Centre crowd expected to top 14,500 definitely will see three new faces for Washington -- goalie Mike Palmateer, rookie defenseman Darren Veitch, Pronovost and right wing Dennis Ververgaert. Another newcomer, defenseman Howard Walker, will not suit up tonight.

The contest matches two improving teams that missed last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington was 6-2 during the exhibition campaign, the Jets 4-1-3 with the only defeat inflicted by their Tulsa farmhands.

Opening night promises hockey-starved fans someone old, something new and a chicken to boo.

The old face is Tom McVie, coach of the Jets, who was the Capitals' leader for 2 1/2 years and still has a legion of friends in the area. McVie would like nothing better than to whip the team that fired him, an act of revenge denied him a year ago as Washington won four of five from the Jets, including an exhibition, with the other contest tied.

"I want to win badly because it's the Caps," McVie said. "But even more than beating the Caps, this is our first game . . . and I want to get off to a good start. I just figure there's no better place to start than Capital Centre.

"They (the Capitals) got to pick first a lot of years and now they've got a good hockey club. I know they want to win, too. We've got a good skating club and it should be a great game."

The something new involves the icemaking plant, which has acquired a new water softener that promises to create a far better surface than the one that has drawn criticism for six years.

"We've never stopped trying to improve things and this should do it," said Chief Gentry, the man who keeps the Centre humming. "The ice looks good and we don't expect the chipping and flaking we've had in the past."

The San Diego Chicken will perform tonight, wearing a Philadelphia Flyers jersey. That guarantees a feeling of hostility, although as far as Washington's Pierre Bouchard is concerned, a Winnipeg uniform with No. 8 would do the job.That belongs to Jimmy Mann, the NHL penalty king of last season whose cheap shot separated Bouchard's collarbone from his breastbone.

The Jets' starting 19-man lineup includes only three players older than 26: center Peter Sullivan and right wing Willy Lindstrom, each 29, and graybeard center Jude Drouin, 31.

"They are young, but it's better to have kids who have never been anywhere than guys who are always telling you how their old team did things," McVie said. "It's going to be tough, but the enthusiasm is tremendous. That's the only thing that matters right now."

The game matches two of the top draftees of last summer, defensemen David Babych (No. 2) of Winnipeg and Veitch (No. 5) of Washington.

"Babych looks great. He still makes 19-year-old mistakes, but I expect that," McVie said. "Look at Rick Green. He's doing a great job, but it took him four years. You can't do it overnight.

"These kids try so hard that I'm even getting patient. I can't remember yelling at anybody this fall. Of course, a couple of times I went up to my office and cried and then went back and told them to keep up the good work."

Veitch has looked solid in all of the Capitals' exhibitions and is not daunted by General Manager Max McNab's warnings of a notable rise in tempo between the last exhibition and the first regular season game.

"We've been in some fast games," Veitch said. "That Toronto game was really fast for two periods. I'm sure I'm going to be ready for this one. It's something I've looked forward to for a long time."

The entire Washington team, plus wives and girl friends, dined together last night in a final display of togetherness before embarking on the new season.

"Other than this Kelly stuff, we're prepared," said captain Ryan Walter. "We're not overoptimistic, because we know Winnipeg has a good skating club and we know all about Tommy McVie and what it means to him. But this is an important game for us, the first game of the season."