In the hour of their greatest need, the Washington Capitals have turned to Gary Inness, the man who saved them once then found himself an outcast.

Inness, 31, will wear his age on his back today when he guards the Capitals' nets in a 1:30 Capital Centre contest against the St. Louis Blues, the best team in the National Hockey League.

It is a pressure assignment for Inness, who last played an NHL game Dec. 12, 1979, and has seen minimal ice time since being sent to the American League Hershey Bears.

"All I can do is give it everything I have, work as hard as I can and hope we get the two points," Inness said. "I am surprised. I hadn't thought about coming back at all.

"I was asked to go to Hershey, I went there and I played. I was working hard and getting some breaks and we won. That's what matters. I'm really out of touch with the NHL, but I'll likely get a quick education."

The call to Inness was an act of desperation by the Capitals, their playoff hopes slipping away after Wednesday's 6-4 loss to Quebec, in which they were betrayed by ineffectual goaltending.

Mike Palmateer, the target of fan anger Wednesday, was playing with a hyperextended thumb on his (right) catching hand. Backup David Parro has been hampered by a twice-dislocated left shoulder that will probably require postseason surgery. Wayne Stephenson, troubled by a sore back, has not played a full game since Dec. 14.

All four goalies were put through a strenuous workout yesterday at Fort Dupont and Inness was solid, making several excellent stops during a scrimmage in which he did not permit a goal. Afterward, Coach Garry Green quickly awarded him today's starting assignment.

"Inch (Inness) was playing well down there and we have a few minor injuries with our goaltenders," Green said. "We wanted to get a look at him today and he worked hard. He always works hard in practice."

The fact that Inness is a hard worker as well as an intense team man makes it embarrassing for management to explain its sorry treatment of him after he played so brilliantly in the winter of 1978-79.

Inness was picked up on Dec. 18, 1978, after the demise of his Indianapolis club in the World Hockey Association. The Capitals had an 8-20-4 record at the time and indifference to hockey was widespread in Washington.

Inness tied Philadelphia the next night and went on to a 14-14-8 record with a 3.70 goals-against mark. He played 27 straight games before tiring and in one stretch posted four victories in a row while allowing only five goals.

Nevertheless, in August 1979 the Capitals acquired Stephenson from Philadelphia and made him the No. 1 goalie. Coach Danny Belisle repeatedly used Stephenson, although Inness was more effective in his few appearances, until Stephenson's failures helped Belisle to lose his job.

Green used Inness sparingly after he arrived, Rollie Boutin became the new goaltending hero and, in January 1980, Inness was sent to Hershey. He was spectacular in the Calder Cup playoffs, recording a 2.82 goals-against as he and Parro led the Bears to the championship.

In June, Washington obtained Palmateer from Toronto and, at training camp, Inness, entering the option year of his contract, was the No. 5 man, seemingly destined either to a quick payoff or assignment outside the Capitals' system. Inness broke a hand in camp, however.

When Inness recovered from his broken hand, McNab tried to place him first in Birmingham and later in Houston, but each team folded during the negotiations. Then, on Jan. 4, both Palmateer and Stephenson were injured. Parro and Boutin were summoned to Washington and Inness was sent to help fill the resulting gap in Hershey.

Brought along slowly by Coach Bryan Murray while he regained his sharpness and conditioning, Inness in recent weeks played better than Boutin, compiling a 4-2 record and 3.52 goals-against. He shut out Binghamton two weeks ago, then beat the Whalers again Wednesday, while the Capitals were slipping into 17th place.

"When Max asked me to go to Hershey, he told me that this was a crazy game, just to go down and work and see what happened," Inness said. "Now, here I am."