The body counts were high at Capital Centre Saturday night, both on and off the ice.

A crowd of 17.921, largest in the National Hockey League this season, turned up to watch the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins struggle to a 2-2 tie. Many stayed late, to jam the players' exit in a search for autographs and prompt Philadelphia expatriate Bob Kelly to say, "Even with the Flyers, we never had a crowd like this waiting. It's good to have the fans with us."

Much of the enthusiasm was generated by the action on the ice. The teams went up and down all night, checking hard and clean and often in a classic exhibition of the way hockey ought to be played.

A large banner at the Centre reads "Hit 'em Hank" and the subject, Washington defenseman Alan Hangsleben, was responsible for a lot of the hitting that came from the home side.

In the early minutes, Hangsleben set the tempo with some solid hits on Steve Kasper and Rick Middleton. In the second period, he delivered a crunching check on Stan Jonathan. But it was in the tough going of the third period that he landed the heaviest hit of the night, devastating Boston captain Wayne Cashman.

"Body for body, good clean hits without the cheap shots, I really enjoyed it," Hangsleben said. "It gets you right into the game. It probably should happen more to us in the first period. Too often, if the other team doesn't want to hit, we don't hit either, and our game is hitting."

Hangsleben came to Washington in January, in a trade for Tom Rowe. Although he always had been a defeseman, at the University of North Dakota and during five seasons with the Hartford Whalers, Coach Gary Green assigned him to left wing, keeping opposing hatchet men off the backs of Rolf Edberg and Bengt Gustafsson.

This season, following the injury to Paul MacKinnon, Hangsleben was moved back to defense. Now, with Rick Green hurt, he figures to stay there. m

"Hank committed himself too quickly on defense last year," Gary Green said. "This year he is more disciplined, maybe from having played left wing. Being able to move around like that makes him one of the most valuable players on the hockey club. Nobody on the club has his value, playing defense and left wing, both above average."

Hangsleben would settle on being an above-average defenseman.

"On defense, I know when I'm doing something wrong," Hangsleben said. "At forward I was always worried that I was doing something wrong. I was never sure of myself. It takes time to adjust to the shift, even though I'd been a defenseman all my life, and I still get caught standing still once in a while. The timing isn't quite 100 percent. The biggest thing is meeting the play before they get in your zone. You have to stand up, be careful not to back in on your goaltender."

Hangsleben is the brainiest of the Capitals and among his accomplishments is the amassing of a collection of thoughts about attitude, which is reprinted in the Capitals' press guide. He started it for a humanities project at North Dakota and has added items periodically. The general thesis is that someone with positive thoughts will achieve success, while one who takes a negative approach will have trouble topping zero.

"When I'm through playing, I hope to coach," Hangsleben said. "The attitude things will help, because hockey is an attitude game, a psychological game. You can't play this game halfway. You play for all the marbles or none.

"Other teams in Washington were satisfied with ties. The guys here now want to win. A tie just makes us think back to what we might have done differently to change the result. The league is so even now that any team can win any night. We want the team that wins to be us."

So, despite the knowledge of a job well done, the Capitals were not celebrating that 2-2 tie.

"The guys came into the dressing room a little down," Gary Green said. "The guys wnated to win. That's a hell of a sign, when the guys get their heads down after a tie with Boston."

That crowd of 17.921, on a day when most Americans were thinking football, is a sign, too, an indication that hockey is close to a big breakthrough in Washington.