Mike Palmateer, the Washington Capitals' highest-paid and most charismatic player, was introduced to a recent dinner gathering of a Washington area sports club as "Mike Pomaretto."

The misnomer typifies the tortuous task of imprinting hockey on the minds of fans oriented from birth toward other sports. And it exemplifies the problems Palmateer has faced in adjusting to life in the slow lane after zooming through the expressway traffic of Toronto.

"I expected things to be this way and I'm not surprised," Palmateer said. "It's up to me and the rest of the Capitals to change it. Actually, the fans who go to the games are great, better even than Toronto. We just need more of them.

"Living here, there's such a difference that it's incredible. Growing up, you learn that the focus of all Canada is on hockey and when I was a kid it was mostly all on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Here everybody knows Joe Theismann, but nobody knows Bob Kelly or Mike Palmateer. Up there everybody knows Mike Palmateer.

"In Toronto, if I needed anything, there was always somebody who'd get it for me at cost. Down here, I'm finding out it's a different ball game. Right now, I'm looking for a boat and I could use some of that cut-rate buying power.

"Of course, all that is great when you're winning. When you lose, the attention isn't so great. I'm glad I had the experience of starting out there. After all, everybody's dream is to grow up and be a hero, but after a while it wears a little thin. Everybody was positive toward me in Toronto, even when they got down on the team, but you like to be able to go to a restaurant and lift a piece of meat and get it to your mouth without somebody coming up to you.

"Here you don't have that total atmosphere of hockey. When you play the whole season with the pressures, it's nice to be able to get away from hockey once in a while and relax."

The ultimate goal, conversely, is to take away that ability to relax by making the Capitals into household faces.

"The idea here is to turn it into a town of hockey Joe Theismanns and make hockey a big sport," Palmateer said. "In the next few years we're going to turn people toward hockey. This year we'll be in the playoffs and each year we hope to go a little farther until we win the Stanley Cup."

The Capitals are counting on Palmateer, who carried the Leafs past the far-more-talented New York Islanders into the 1978 Stanley Cup semifinals, to provide the leadership as the Capitals move up the ladder. So far, while showing flashes of brilliance, he has been prevented from demonstrating his true worth by a series of injuries.

Palmateer's most inspired Capital performances came in pressure situations in Toronto, where Washington won, 7-3, despite facing a season-high 45 shots, and in Philadelphia, where Palmateer stopped all 44 Flyer shots to win, 6-0.

One of those big games could be forthcoming Saturday night (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30 p.m.) in the guaranteed antipathy of Madison Square Garden. Palmateer will be facing a feisty New York Ranger team that shares 12th place with Washington and felt a couple of penalties' worth of Palmateer's calculated wrath during Washington's 7-3 victory at Capital Centre Dec. 26. c