Wednesday night, as the Washington Capitals' bus halted at Canadian customs en route to Windsor Airport and the charter flight home from that 7-7 tie in Detroit, a message was passed to goalie Mike Palmateer.

"Tell Mike Palmateer he's got a real fan here," the uniformed customs official said, while a young woman in the background smiled shyly.

Everywhere Palmateer takes his angelic face and curly locks, he has fans. But nowhere does he have them as in Toronto, where he returns Saturday night for a contest against his former employers, the Maple Leafs.

This was to be a weekend in which hockey fans could make a head-to-head evaluation of that big off-season trade, in which the Capitals sent defenseman Robert Picard to Toronto for Palmateer. However, Picard will not be present tonight at Capital Centre when the teams open their home-and-home series.

Picard stretched knee ligaments in Winnipeg Nov. 9 and, although he has made a remarkable recovery, doctors will not permit him to play in the weekend series.

"I wish I could have played this weekend," Picard said by telephone from Toronto. "But the doctors won't let me take the chance. It's made me a little mad. I can't even make the trip to Washington, because I have to skate here Friday and Saturday.

"When I was hurt, the doctors told me I'd be out in six weeks. I said, 'Thanks, doc, see you around.' I've been having therapy for the last week and I've been skating and I've come back quick. But I've got to wait till next week. I'm wearing a brace and I'll probably have to wear it for a year. I'm getting used to it.

"It's an unusual injury for a hockey player, at least the doctors here in Toronto haven't heard of it before. The outside ligaments are stretched. They didn't put the knee in a cast or anything, but it takes time. I'll be back soon. I've already missed six games and the team's gone 1-4-1 since I'm out, so I guess they'll be glad to see me back.

"I love it here. It's a great town. I can't ask for any better. It's a great hockey town and they appreciate what you do, which I never thought they did in Washington. We've got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of youth and I think the future looks good."

A lot of people in Toronto wish the Leafs still had Palmateer, but they have not shown resentment toward Picard. They know Palmateer's departure was the goalie's idea and they are glad the Leafs at least were able to acquire Picard in exchange.

Palmateer obviously would like to be facing the Leafs in both weekend games, but he claims no hard feelings about sitting on the bench tonight while Wayne Stephenson is in goal.

"It's just another game," Palmateer said. "I'll be playing against them 40 or 50 more times before I'm through."

The first of the 40 or 50 times will come Saturday, although Palmateer provided Leaf fans with an indication of what they are missing during an exhibition in which he made 38 saves and Washington beat Toronto, 6-1.

That night a horde of fans, mostly young and female, surrounded the Capitals' bus and gave the team the rock band treatment. Dozens of fans wore No. 29 Toronto jerseys and the Gardens were bedecked with banners bearing such sentiments as "And on the 8th Day, God created Mike Palmateer."

"All that exhibition victory means is that I've got to do it again," Palmateer said. "There's no pressure on me. Who cares if I play well, except myself? Everybody will say what they want anyway. I'm not as excited about it as everybody would think."

At least, not until those 16,485 fans start warming up to the occasion.

There will be no radio broadcast of either 8 p.m. game, but WDCA-TV-20 will televise Saturday's proceedings. . . The nine goals scored by the two teams in the third period Wednesday came within one of the NHL record. Washington's six matched the club mark for a period and set an NHL team record for goals in one period on the road. . . aDennis Ververgaert's two goals 13 seconds apart tied the Capitals' record set by Bob Sirois in Atlanta Oct. 13, 1978. It was not a personal mark, since Ververgaert scored a pair just 10 seconds apart in the 1976 NHL All-Star Game at Philadelphia. . . Greg Joly, the first Capital, has been placed on waivers by Detroit. He never has fully recovered from a broken wrist suffered in the 1978 Stanley Cup playoffs. . . Canada celebrates Thanksgiving in October; there was no holiday season yesterday for the Capitals, who reluctantly reported for afternoon physical training at Capital Centre. . . Players set fire to a newspaper containing a story on Rick Smith and tossed it to the nearest Capital on the bus Wednesday, with the advice that it was "hot news."