When Dennis Maruk played for the Cleveland Barons, he knocked at the players' entrance to the Montreal Forum and was told to go peddle his papers, or whatever people too small to play sports are expected to do in life.

It took some pushing and shoving and harsh words before the 5-foot-8 Maruk convinced the skeptical attendant he was, indeed, a hockey player and entitled to pass into hallowed halls largely populated by 6-footers.

When the Washington Capitals venture into Pacific Coliseum Tuesday night to play the Vancouver Canucks, Maruk will be carrying some large credentials to compensate for his small size.

During the Capitals' curretn four-game unbeatedn streak, Maruk has been voted No. 1 star every night. He had at least one goal in five straight games, collecting seven over that stretch, and he has four goals in the last two contests. For the season, he has 35, one short of his season high, recorded with Cleveland in 1977-78.

Despite his large talent and even larger heart, Maruk's size has been a factor in the way people treat him since he first laced on skates in Toronto at age 4, went outside to play and discovered it was too cold.

He returned to the sport at 7, generating a warmer feeling because that was where his friends were. By age 16, he found himself on a championship junior B team, the Markham Waxers, along with another hockey shrimp, Mike Palmateer.

Moving up to junior A, Maruk was dealt 140 miles down the road to London, in a trade for Mark Howe. A lot of lonely, miserable days and nights followed before he met Joni, the girl who became his wife.

Venting his numerous frustrations on the opposition, Maruk rolled up an Ontario Major Junior record of 66 goals and 145 points in 1974-75, his final junior season, and waited to be chosen quickly in the first round of an NHL draft rendered subpar by underage selections the year before. It turned out to be a long wait.

"When the first round went by, I figured there must be some reasons, and one was my size," Maruk said. "I'd heard talk that NHL people thought I was too small."

Some of that talk came from Washington General Manager Milt Schmidt, whose team trained in London. Schmidt had seen Maruk and vice versa. But Schmidt chose two big men, Alex Forsyth and Pete Scamurra, and had no regrets when Maruk went to Oakland in the second round, because Schmidt felt Maruk was -- what else? -- too small.

"I was watching their training camp that first year and I thought to myself, 'Maybe I could be there with that team,'" Maruk said. "I really thought they'd take me the year before, underage. When they didn't, I thought I proved my point playing against them while I was with London. We lost an exhibition to them, 8-5, but I banged in four goals."

Maruk went to Oakland, made the club despite the skepticism of General Manager Billy McCreary, who had him ticketed for the minors, and collected 30 goals that first season. The very first in the NHL was storybook stuff, scored against the Maple Leafs in his hometown of Toronto.

The Oakland fans loved Maruk's hustle and developed a "Ma-rooook" chant that would follow his to Cleveland. But spectators on the road were less kind and a typical remark shot across quiet Capital Centre one night: "Maruk, why don't you get off your knees?"

"I hear that all the time, but I just keep going," Maruk said. "Sure, I'd like to be two or three inches taller, but I look at it that maybe if I was taller I wouldn't be so fast or quick. That's the way I was born and that's the way I'll be.

"Size is something I constantly have to work to overcome. I can't play a nonchalant game. A big guy can get by making three or four long strides. I have to be constantly going to stay ahead of him."

Maruk finally came to Washington two years ago for a No. 1 draft choice after Minnesota decided he was surplus. He set a club scoring record of 90 points the first season, then was voted the Capitals' most popular player a year ago, when knee surgery limited his playing to 27 games.

Maruk is an integral part of the Capitals' improvement, but still he must live with those remarks about his size. For one thing, his name is not Dennis; he is universally known as "PeeWee."

"We have a lot of meals together and the guys cut each other up," Maruk said. "Like, they'll be passing out the meals and somebody will say, 'No. 21, stand up and get your dinner.' And, of course, I am standing up. When I'm ribbed by my teammates, I let them say it. What else can I do?I'm not all of a sudden going to put on four inches."

Maruk all of a sudden the other night in Pittsburgh put on another mantle, though: team leader. With the Capitals two goals down after the second period, Maruk came out in the final 20 minutes and scored twice in what eventually concluded as a 4-4 tie.

"I think PeeWee made a breakthrough in that game," said Coach Gary Green. "He really led our hockey club in the third period. He had no points in the first or second period and when he isn't getting the breaks, he can get frustrated and it hurts him. But this time he came out and took charge for us."

"I have no target for number of goals," Maruk said. "I only want to score to put this team in the playoffs. The guys are really together and I'm looking forward to our making the playoffs together.

"Some of the other guys, like Bob (Kelly) and Palmy (Palmateer) say it's a great feeling. But you don't know until you're there. This is my sixth season and I've never been there. Getting there is the most important thing. If I have to score every game to help the team get there, I will."

Maruk has not scored every night, and during one flu-bedeviled 10-game stretch he had only one goal. But his overall figures are impressive: 35 goals and 26 assists to lead the team in scoring. He had back to back hat tricks in Pittsburgh and Hartford and five of his six NHL hat tricks have come on the road, with four-goal games in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and New York.

In 155 games as a Capital, Maruk has 76 goals and 102 assists to become the only Washington player ever to average more than a point a game. It is a remarkable feat.

Twenty players, one over the nightly limit, are making this trip, which continues Thursday in Calgary and Saturday in Los Angeles. . .Defensemen Rick Green and Yvon Labre and goalie Wayne Stephenson were left at home.