In Capital Centre last night, there was a moment perhaps unique in the history of Washington-area pro sports. One of four victory-starved teams, the Caps, surely the Senators of hockey, had just gained an insurmountable lead -- and many of their most devoted fans were gloomy.

That was because for the first time in their seven-year lives, the Caps had a chance to become mediocre, to archieve the minimum degree of hockey competence, the last playoff spot, the right to cheer: "We're No. 16."

In some towns, 16th place will get a coach fired and most of the players tarred and feathered. In Washington, it is cause for celebration, parades even. And only the Caps could find a way to lose while winning, as they did last night.

When they got a 5-2 lead against players worse than themselves, the Detroit Red Wings, news had spread among the most inventive of the crowd of 12,531 that the team also fighting for that last playoff position, Toronto, was in splendid shape to get it.

Toronto was a goal ahead of Quebec in the game and two goals up in terms of the playoffs, for the playoffs were assured even with a tie. Cap Coach Gary Green had been wrong all along. It would take more than 69 points to make the playoffs. His team hit 70 last night -- and scrambled for radios in the dressing room.

Green apologized for a Capital inconvenience to the customers, the fact that nobody mentioned a public word about Toronto-Quebec before the Caps' 7-2 victory was accomplished and their version of the Academy Awards had ended. Then Ron Weber announced the score at the end of the second period: Toronto, 3-2.

And the team began some serious rooting.

"They (Quebec) said they'd do it," Ryan Walter said. "Their general manager promised they'd put us in the playoffs and keep them out, because Toronto kept them out of the league for two years."

Publicly, the players were glad Green avoided any messages from Quebec.

"It's better that way," said Jean Pronovost. "We could concentrate on nothing but our game. What if we're ahead of it's announced that Toronto is up 3-0 or something. There'd be a tendency to say: 'Ah, what's the use in working any more?"

Had anybody with the Caps sent any inspirational messages to the Quebec players? Or made any promises about future favors in exchange for a victory over Toronto?

George Allen would have peppered the Quebec dressing room with telegrams and every cliche in sports. He and his surrogates would have been on the phone nearly every hour trying whatever was in his power to somehow make life miserable for the Maple Leafs.

The Caps left Quebec to its own devices.

And lost. Less than an hour after their own five-goal success, the Caps listened glum-faced as Toronto scored an empty-net goal that clinched both a victory and the playoffs. Then they gathered their emotions and walked back onto the ice to greet an amazing number of the faithful on Fan Appreciation Night.

Capital fans continue to be a special breed. And the Caps uncommon sufferers. Why the players dragged themselves back onto the ice of few minutes after another promise unfulfilled to endure mixing with their public was not as hard to understand as why so many fans joined them.

What, after all, was there to appreciate? Seven years of spectacularly dreadful hockey. This season, like last, it seemed almost impossible to avoid the playoffs, for the NHL invites nearly everyone who can swing a stick.

The Caps missed the playoffs. They missed the playoffs in their fashion, trying desperately but slipping at just the worst times.

"The (5-3) loss to Hartford was the worst the one that sort of sealed it for us," said Pronovost. "We win that one, like we should have, and we're in, no matter what Toronto does tonight."

In fact, the Caps won one fewer game this season than last, although a 26-36-18 record did yield three more points than last year's 27-40-13.

Yet the Caps ended their season to a standing ovation. And when Dennis Maruk finished a bat-trick night with his 50th goal of the season, hats were tossed onto the ice in joy.

There was one realist in the audience, Phil LaBlatt, an Olympian in 1936 who presented an award after the game. The Caps still had not bothered to give the fans the courtesy of a Toronto-Quebec score, but LaBlatt knew the real Caps' score.

"I hope you have better luck next year," he said.

Still, hundreds and hundreds of fans began streaming down the back stairways and waited about half an hour for the team to drift into the dressing room, powder its collective nose and return to commiserate with them.

Like last year, the 17th-place team in a 21-team league had an adoring public. More people than used to watch them play streamed onto the ice for one last look, a picture, an autograph, a kind word.

Owner Abe Pollin was a two-time lower this season, for both his teams failed to make the playoffs, the Bullets for the first time in 13 years. Perhaps we should take to calling his hockey team the Cap Pistols, because they so rarely do any harm.

But the team clearly is appealing, in its way. It is difficult not to root for Pollin or Green or Max McNab, to wish that one day Pollin will be able to hug his hockey pet, Walter, with the intensity he did Wes Unseld when the Bullets won the NBA title.

For reasons that mystify a lot of us who cannot understand why anyone would love a game that often tolerates grown men swinging sticks at one another, Washington is aching to become a hockey town. Perhaps sometime soon. Perhaps not.