Defenseman Rick Smith returns Thursday night to the building where he played for eight seasons and earned a Stanley Cup ring. The Washington Capitals are counting on Smith's experience to help them to a vital first-ever victory over the Boston Bruins in Boston Garden.

Rookie Jim McTaggart will sit in the stands for the first time since Jan. 24 while Smith plays the right side and Pat Ribble moves to the left.Mike Palmateer will be in goal.

"It was a big decision I had to make and this particular game I'm going with the experience factor over the young legs," said Coach Gary Green."Smitty knows the Boston rink and the Boston team so well.Maybe it will boil down to Rick Middleton having the puck and going against Smitty, and Smitty will know from all those days of practice which way Rick Middleton will go.

"Smitty always plays well when he's had rest and he's had four days this time. It also gives us three guys on the right side who can play the right side. Ribble will be on the left, and his game goes down 15 percent on the right side.

"I hate to take Tags (McTaggart) out because I hate to take that aggressiveness out. But under pressure lately he's been showing his lack of experience."

In 15 visits to Boston, the Capitals have left with two ties and 13 defeats. They are hoping to reverse things this time (Wdca-tv-20 at 7:30 p.m.), a la Philadelphia, because the game means so much to their flickering playoff hopes.

Toronto gained a point tonight by tying Chicago, 2-2, and leads the Capitals by two points in the battle for 16th place. This weekend, Toronto plays home and home against Quebec, the NHL's hottest team. Washington visits the New York Islanders and hosts lowly Detroit.

The Bruins are fighting Minnesota for eighth place and home-ice advantage in their first-round playoff matchup.

Like Washington, Minnesota never has won in Boston Garden, which measures only 191 feet by 83 feet, rather than the standard 200 by 85. The Bruins, gearing their play to the rink, have won eight of their last nine at home, while winning only one of nine on the road.

"Recently, they've been going very well," Smith said. "They send in two men to forecheck and they hit as much as possible. They hit to make the other team move quickly, to rush its play, and that way they force mistakes in the offensive zone."

Smith played with Boston the last four years, following a similar stretch in 1968-72, then was grabbed by Detroit in the October intraleague draft. He was waived to Washington in November and suffered a broken right index finger Dec. 6, the night before the Capitals came here for their first visit and lost, 7-3.

Smith has a plus-eight rating, second among the defense only to Howard Walker's plus-nine. Walker will continue to team with Darren Veitch. Rick Green is paired with Paul MacKinnon, who played briefly Sunday in his first action since suffering torn knee ligaments Oct. 30.

"We had to play six games in nine days a week ago and Darren and Howie played well in the first four," Gary Green said. "The last two, even with their youth, they were tired.

"Nobody else in this league has gone with three rookie defensemen and a lot of teams are going to have to be breaking in young defensemen while hopefully we won't have to be making any changes back there for a long time, with Green and MacKinnon so young, too."

For this one key game, however, a change will be made.