In the Caps' annual February Flop, goaltender Mike Palmateer let in 43 goals in eight games. He gave up eight one night. Everyone worried that he would catch a cold from all those pucks breezing by.

"Out of 10, I was about a 5," he said.

But before he ever suited up with the Caps, Palmateer "guaranteed" they would make the NHL playoffs this season.

"I never lie," he said the other day. "We'll be there."

Radio man, holding microphone up to Palmateer: "If the Caps get into the Stanley Cup, then will you, as a goaltender, win games on your own?"

Palmateer, forcefully: "Yes, I'll do it all then."

Is this man serious? This man, who was little more than an apparition in the nets for eight of the 13 straight games the Capitals didn't win after Feb. 1? This man whose goals-against average of 4.10 was, at week's start, 24th best of the 32 goalies with more than 1,000 minute work?

"If we get there," Palmateer said seriously, "I will do it all. There is no question about it. You have to feel confident you're going to do it, not the other guy. Any goaltender in this league can beat any team. And I believe if it comes down to it, I can beat anybody."

This is brave talk, at least as brave as the talk of a year ago when the Caps hoped to reach the giddy heights of 16th place in a 21-team league and so qualify for the playoffs. Of al the league teams more than two seasons old, only the Capitals, in their seventh year, never have been in the playoffs. The New York Islanders, to name one member of the Caps' generation of teams, have won the Stanley Cup.

Not that the Caps aren't trying. Even now, they are suddenly very much alive for the playoffs after three straight victories going into tonight's 8 o'clock game against Boston at Capital Centre.

Abe Pollin, the owner, and Max McNab, the general manager every year except the first, have hired coaches and fired coaches; they traded No. 1 draft choices and kept No. 1s; they brought in 100 wingers, and they looked so longingly at so many goaltenders that, a year ago, they decided it was time to bring in the best one available, no matter the cost.

Mike Palmateer, 27, whose lifetime goals-against average was 3.07, cost the Caps a tall pile of money in a long-term contract, and he cost them defenseman Robert Picard, a No. 1 draft choice who someday ought to be a star. Toronto this week passed Picard on to Montreal for a goaltender, a deal that, taken with Palmateer's eratic play here, says the Picard-Palmateer trade didn't help either team.

McNab disagrees, naturally. "We'd make the same trade again," he said. But then, what is he supposed to say when, in six years as general manager, he has been unable to put the team into the playoffs?

McNab says it isn't all Palmateer's fault, and he takes a book off the shelf behind his desk to explain it.

To begin with the NHL has gone berserk on scoring. Only one of the 21 teams allows fewer than three goals a night. "Look back at the goals-against average of Hall of Fame goalies. They have lifetime aveages of 1.95 and the life. Look at Jacques Plante."

McNab picked up the record book. "Plante, with the Canadiens, was 1.59, 2.02, 2.11, 2.18, 2.5, 2.49."

He then turned pages to find Gump Worsley.

"The classic trade of goaltenders was Plante to the Rangers for Worsley," McNab said, reading off the numbers: With Montreal in '62-63, Plante had a 2.49 goals-against average; with New York the next season, he was 3.38. hWorsley was 3.35 with New York in '62-63; after a couple years in the minors -- the Canadiens didn't like Gump's attitude -- Worsley was 2.78 his first year in Montreal, then 2.36 and 1.98.

"Goals-against can be misleading," McNab said. "An NHL goalie should stop 90 percent of all shots at him. Ours is down slightly, which worries us a bit, but just lately we've had this brutal assault on our net. Palmy has an 87.3 percentage, but he has had an assortment of injuries and we've had as many as four rookies on defense in front of him some games. The shots at a Ken Dryden, the ultimate goalie, with a 92 percent record, were often perimeter shots because the defense wouldn't let anyone closer. Other goaltenders may see more difficult shots."

A goaltender for the Capitals, for instance, may see 100-mph shots from 10 feet away.

The Capitals explain away the dreadful defensive work as the result of injuries. Injuries are part of it. The best players are no use if hurt. The question, though, is how any franchise, as the Caps have, can use injuries as an annual excuse for mediocrity. And the larger question yet is why the injuries happen. Few injuries are flukes, Chuck Noll has said. They happen mostly when a player's mind is preoccupied. The Caps could simply be worn out mentally, and consequently susceptible to injury.

As they under Tommy McVie, the Caps under Gary Green carry a back-breaking work load. They practiced two hours Monday afternoon, with Green running them through full-speed drills and even walking them through defenses as he might have the first week of training camp six months ago. This followed a Sunday night game. It preceded a Tuesday morning practice and meeting, with a game that night and a 7 a.m. wakeup for a flight the next day. It was early in a five-games-in-seven-days work week.

If any Cap pleaded that he was hockeyed out after six months of such intense work, no one would argue it.

"You have to work now," Palmateer said. "Every game is important now, and it's no time to let up. We're all ready."

The facts are that the Capitals, once 10 points ahead of the 16th-place team, now are locked in a three-or four-team, now are locked in a three-or four-team battle for that last playoff spot. The Caps, at the start of the week, were 19th in the league in power-play percentage, 21st and dead last in penalty-killing effectiveness, 19th in giving up short-handed goals, 16th in scoring short-handed, 18th in total scoring and 12th in defense against scoring.

"Every club has its bad spells," Palmateer said of the Caps' 13-game bewitchment, "but not to the extent we did. Guys started pressing, got a little tight and weren't playing our game. We were all trying to do too much. I was trying to move the puck out of the end on my own instead of leaving it for the defense. I admit I was having my problems. I was roaming too much. And I let in a couple bad goals that didn't help, either.

"But now we've won two games in a row," the goaltender said Tuesday night, before the streak stretched to three. "The games mean a lot now."

Gary Green, carrying a piece of pizza and a beer, walked around the locker room, stopping every now and then beside a player to talk hockey.