At a crucial moment during the Capitals' 3-3 tie with Montreal Wednesday night, the Canadiens caught Washington in a line change. Rod Langway's quick pass sent rookie Keith Acton down the right side on a breakaway and the crowd of 10,114 buzzed in anticipation of disaster.

Racing to the rescue, however, was defenseman Pierre Bouchard, who came all the way from the Capitals' bench to the opposite side of the ice to cut Acton off at the shot.

At age 32, Bouchard is skating better than ever. So, too, are Jean Pronovost, 34, and Guy Charron, 31. At least, if they are not skating better, it is not the fault of the assistant coach, Bill Mahoney.

Mahoney is the conductor of an off-season skating school in Huron Park, Ontario, and has worked with many NHL youngsters, including Montreal's Doug Risebrogh and Mario Tremblay. While NHL clubs see the need to improve rookies' skating techniques, they have never before tried to tamper with the strides of grizzled veterans.

"It's amazing to me that a pro of 30 or so has never had anyone work to improve his technique," Mahoney said. "Its possible that a player has reached the pro level despite peculiarities of skating style and corrective work will make him that much better. Work on technique has got to help, whether you're 18 or 30.

"Of course, an understanding of efficiency of skating is needed before a player will accept changes, particularly at a later age. Very often the reaction is: "I've always done it this way, so why change now?" I point out that if a player skates in a more efficient way, he may not be so tired in the third period. Or if maybe he gets more force in his stride, he will beat a younger skater to the puck.

"One of the key areas for improvement is in start technique. I've had a lot of players tell me, 'Once I'm going, I'm fine.' The wasted energy and increased strain come from poor start technique."

Mahoney has had no problem persuading the veteran Capitals to try new methods. If anything, they seem flattered by the attention, since none could remember ever receiving a skating lesson.

"I never had a lesson. I always did it the natural way," Bouchard said. "Bill is very good, pointing out details that give you some zip on skates. He has showed me a new way to start, to stay flat and take three good strides at the beginning instead of going sideways and chopping.

"I didn't feel I had my speed back and I was not so quick on skates the last couple of years. But after working with Bill, particularly on quickness of reaction, I've felt better. The first three games, I didn't think I'd have the quickness I had on the ice."

"When he came to us, we told him that at 30 and above, we learned by experience," Charron said, laughing. "Actually, there is not a whole lot we can change at our age. We've done things by habit so long. But if there are some little things I can pick up. I want to do it.

"After 11 years, you run out of things to do, so I don't mind trying some new things. Bill showed me how, when I started my stride, the weight of my leg pushing put a small arc on the ice. I was losing a fraction of a second. Nobody had ever examined my stride before, not even in hockey shcool. I just learned out on the playgrounds."

"I grew up playing hockey and I never had any skating lessons," Pronovost said. "I've been working on quickness and Bill has some good points. I'm willing to try if it will improve my game. He's shown that there is a technique to your stride and if it will improve mine, I'm all for it."

Mahoney has shown Pronovost how he can gain more control while carrying the puck by skating with his body in a more upright position. But he has been careful not to alter Pronovost's bent-body approach to forechecking, when it is helpful.

Mahoney's next project will be to increase Bouchard's mobility in dealing with speedy opponents motoring down the wing and trying to go around him.

"When I try to hold the blue line, then back up, I look bad, like a monument," Bouchard said. "But I can't back up and leave him the blue line."

It is a safe bet that Mahoney will find an answer.

Dennis Maruk skated at yesterday's practice despite a slight charley-horse, a reminder of Wednesday's collision with Bob Gainey. . . A postpractice team meeting was delayed while a photographer for People magazine photographed Coach Gary Green and goalies Mike Palmateer and Wayne Stephenson. "Some days, coaches get in very bad moods," Green grumbled. . .