Tankards and handkerchiefs are the prescribed accessories for hockey aficionados tonight at Capital Centre, where the Washington Capitals conclude a four-game, season-opening home stand against the New York Rangers at 7:30. a

The above items are not an indication that Capital backers are still expected to cry in their beer. Instead, they mark another giveaway night and a visit by the Rangers' Phil Esposito.

Esposito has become the most-hated visitor to Capital Centre. He achieved that honor a few years back by storming goal judge Gus Connery when Connery declined to turn on the light for a shot Esposito felt had landed in the net. That marked the beginning of the handkerchief salute from the fans.

Esposito returned the greeting in a different vein on a later visit, after he scored a game-tying goal with just five seconds left. Esposito's salute was of the one-finger variety, and was not an expression involving No. 1.

Esposito claims not to be bothered by the obvious hatred of Washington fans and said, "If it brings 5,000 more people into the building, they can wave all the hankies they want at me. What bothers me is that nobody ever throws me a hankie. With my honker, I could use a big one."

Since Esposito has collected 22 legal goals and 24 assists against Washington in 25 games, it would seem that the heckling inspires him to greater effort, if possible.

Esposito, 38, recently signed a new contract with the Rangers and hopes to challenge Gordie Howe's career record of 801 regular-season. NHL goals. Esposito entered this campaign with 710, a figure he has been unable to improve upon through four games, of which the Rangers have lost three.

New York has been hampered by illness and injury, with both of Esposito's usual linemates unable to play tonight. Left wing Don Maloney is suffering from mononucleosis, while right wing Dean Talafous has a neck injury.

So Esposito has been shuffled around. In the Rangers' last game, a 2-1 loss to St. Louis Wednesday, he centered Dave Silk and Ron Duguay much of the night, although also taking a few shifts with Cam Connor and Ed Hospodar.

Whoever Esposito skates with, he probably will find himself hounded by Washington captain Ryan Walter, who usually checks the big Ranger. Esposito has nothing but admiration for his shadow.

"Washington has improved a lot the last few years and one of the reasons is a kid like Ryan Walter, who I consider one of the best players I've ever seen in the game," Esposito said.

The Rangers' only really successful player has been 19-year-old Mike Allison, who has recorded four goals in four games. Allison, not expected to stick in the NHL, is a normal center and a right-hand shot, but the juggling because of injuries has placed him at left wing alongside Swedes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.

Barry Beck, who missed the first three games because of a broken finger, returned to action Wednesday, but only briefly. Beck cross-checked the Blues' Larry Patey, pounded him a bit and tried to resume the battle after being pulled off by linesmen. He was ejected as a violator of the NHL's new "persistence" rule for prolonging an altercation.

Things got no better for Beck yesterday as he was struck in the mouth by a puck during practice and required 30 stitches in the upper and lower lip.

Esposito, as president of the NHL Players Association, was one of the principal backers of the new regulations designed to control unlimited fighting in hockey, with provisions for extra penalties for refusing to break up a fight, or for joining a fight in progress, or for escalating a brawl by coming off the bench.

"I've advocated it for four years," Esposito said. "It's the best rule they've employed in years. Brawling takes away from the sport. It gives it a bad image."