When the face of the National Hockey League is altered in October, with realigned divisions, an unbalanced schedule and an intradivisional playoff structure, it will be like a slap in the face for the sport's starving stepchild, the Washington Capitals.

For seven eyars, the Capitals have failed to reach the playoffs. In the past two seasons, when the top 16 among the NHL's 21 members qualified, the Capitals came up to their last game with a chance to finish 16th -- and failed.

Sixteen teams will be playoff-bound in the future, but now they will qualify strictly on a divisional basis, four from each. The Capitals, naturally, are in the toughest division, and who can doubt that they will finish among the top 16 this season -- but fifth in the Patrick Division.

The Capitals must compete with the two-time champion New York Islanders, hockey's first team; the Philadelphia Flyers, a team on the way down but still far above Washington's level; the New York Rangers, struggling but certain to rise with Herb Brooks' coaching and Gulf and Western's money, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team of considerable unfulfilled talent that has suffered from penny-pinching.

It would be no surprise to see Washington slip ahead of Pittsburgh occasionally in the next five years. The result, however, at least until huge salary demands break the champions' stranglehold, will be a first-round playoff series with the powerful Islanders. It is a grim prospect.

"We're not afraid of Pittsburgh and we can handle the Rangers," said Washington Coach Gary Green. What else could he say? He cannot complain about the alignment, because the Capitals actively sought and obtained it as part of the merger agreement in 1979.

Peter O'Malley, the Capitals' alternate governor who engineered that coup, envisioned full houses for those extra regular-season game with the Flyers, Rangers and Islanders. There is also a considerable saving on travel expenses. Unfortunately, there is little to look forward to in playoff rewards, and that is the ultimate goal.

The lowering of the draft age to 18 makes it more difficult for bottom clubs like Washington to build themselves up to the level of the top teams. While the Islanders, Buffalo, Montreal and Minnesota draft on the basis of the future, the Capitals must try to find immediate help. So, instead of gambling on the unlimited potential of a Brent Sutter, 18, as the Islanders did, Washington grasps the immediate contribution of an older Darren Veitch, and pays the price down the road.

If this seems like a pessimistic view of the Capitals' future, it is possible to find even darker possibilities. Hockey in Washington, seemingly so close to a big breakthrough, could be headed for the scrap heap.

Abe Pollin, who has spent millions on the franchise, may not have millions more to continue the elusive pursuit of excellence. More important, he may not have the will to do so. Right now Pollin is not talking, just "thinking" about the future.

If the rewards figure to be few, the process of seeking them should prove more entertaining for Capital Centre loyalists. Not only will better teams be performing here more often, but the red lights and sirens will receive greater usage, as scoring increases and hook-and-hold defensive play declines.

In the NHL this season, the average goals per game reached 7.69, up from the 7.03 of a year earlier and far ahead of the 5.96 of 1966-67, the last year of the six-team league. There is no reason to believe the trend will not continue, quickly surpassing the league record of 8.2 established in 1943-44, when so many stars were in other uniforms.

"Defensive hockey has gone the way of the horse and buggy," said Green, the innovative coach of the Capitals. "The four-man attack has become common. Teams are willing to risk breaks at the other end, depending on their goalie to stop them, in order to increase their own scoring opportunities.

"The day of the defensive defenseman is ending. The goal scorers get the headlines and money, and kids coming up are going to pattern themselves after Wayne Gretzky. There is no turning back now."

Gretzky amassed 164 points to break the NHL record by 12. Fifteen years ago nobody had ever scored 100 in a season, yet this year Los Angeles had a line of 100-point scorers -- Marcel Dionne 135, Dave Taylor 112 and Charlie Simmer 105. Montreal won the Vezina Trophy with the highest winning goals-against average in history, 2.90.

Randy Carlyle of Pittsburgh, although a minus player, was named defenseman of the year by The Hockey News after a season in which he recorded 83 points. Green counted the points scored by all of Washington's defensemen, found they ranked 21st in the league, a mere 45 points higher than Carlyle alone, and placed an order with General Manager Max McNab for an offensive-minded defenseman next season.

Increased forechecking, bottling up an opponent and forcing him to make a mistake while risking a breakout at the other end, is the dominant force in hockey today. Few teams expect their wingers to skate up and down playing positional hockey anymore; instead, virtually every team sends two men in to forecheck. When a team is behind, it does not hesitate to throw everyone into the offensive zone.

Many NHL coaches are poring over videotapes trying to find out why goals are being scored in record numbers and Colorado's Billy MacMillan noted, "More defensemen are being caught out of position and forwards are not backchecking."

But while the tactical minds seek means to combat the deluge of goals, Islander right wing Mike Bossy probably speaks for the fan as well when he says, "I don't know if I'd consider it a problem."

Another likely reason for higher scoring figures is the abundance of youngsters in the game, many of them unschooled in defensive techniques. In the past three years, according to Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players Associaiton, the average age of an NHL player has dropped from 28 to 25; the average career potential from eight years to 5.14. Not one player over 30 participted in this year's NHL All-Star Game.

The change is not wholly attuned to up-and-coming ability. NHL clubs are trying to reduce payrolls and youngsters are cheaper than veterans whose salaries have continued to rise while their talents have peaked.

McNab thinks many of the younger players are coming into the NHL without necessary basic skills. While they properly learn the game, they make mistakes that tend to inflate scores.

"In the first 50 years of the NHL, with only six teams, there were so many good players with skills coming up to fill those few positions that they didn't need basic coaching," McNab said. "Now we have to improve skills and execution, and that means we need better coaching, too."

Many teams have hired college coaches as assistants, the Capitals' Bill Mahoney being a prime example, with the task of working on skills lacking even in veteran players. Where few teams had one assistant five years ago, it will be a rare club in the next five that does not hire at least two.

The NHL has avoided the labor problems that have beset other sports, but it faces difficulties in that area. The players association, spurred by the astronomical free-agent baseball salaries and the absence of movement in hockey brought on by compensation requirements and the Dale McCourt case, is demanding free agency similar to baseball.

The owners, who want to maintain the status quo, fear that a few George Steinbrenners would quickly corner the top talent and force a number of poorer clubs out of business. Negotiations have broken down, and, if there is no movement toward compromise, a strike in September 1982 is a strong possibility.

The NHL seems destined to move into the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, as well as Hamilton, Ontario, when that city builds a rink. Seattl is a possibility, too. But whether the newcomers enter as expansion clubs to boost the league to its goal of 24 teams, or whether they take over existing franchises, depends on economic developments.

A new rink in Calgary is close to reality: ground-breaking began last month. Complications with the New Hampshire legislature forced the owners of the Boston Bruins to abandon plans to build a new rink there, but it is likely they eventually will move out of the antiquated Boston Garden for a new arena somewhere either in Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

Fighting continues to be a major topic of discussion. General Manager Lou Nanne of the Minnesota North Stars, weary of watching opposing goons start brawls with his more talented players, wants fighting abolished. HNL President John Ziegler represents the majority opinion that it is needed as an outlet for frustrations. But the playoff antics of such as Philadelphia's Dglen Cochrane and the Rangers' Ed Hospodar have borne more relation to calculated intimidation than to spontaneous combustion, so the topic will bear more examination.

"We have no concrete knowledge of how the fans feel, what percentage is attracted to the sport by fighting," McNab said. "The governors have to consider that no fighting will mean a basic difference in the sport, and that once you rule it out, there is no turning back.

"There is no fighting in European hockey, but we are able to get players there because of the empty seats, because their clubs can't afford to keep them. We don't know whether it's the economic situation over there or the noncombatant type of hockey."

Major strides continue to be made in hockey equipment and NHL fans can expect to see revolutionary changes in uniforms. Already, the Western Junior League is wearing uniforms similar to jogging suits instead of the bulky pants, and they have been widely accepted within the league. The uniforms are 20 to 40 percent lighter than the current outfits while providing 20 percent more protection.

"There were some complaints at first, but it's like everything new," said Victoria Coach Jack Shupe. "Once you give it a chance, you usually like it. Some players claimed they were too hot, but what's wrong with an athlete working up a sweat?"

There should be greater American influence in the sport, with more good players coming out of U.S. colleges and now, with Robbie Carpenter having broken the ice as a first-round draft pick of the Capitals, American high schools are getting a look. In fact, a heretofore-unheard-of 17 American schoolboys were selected in last month's draft.

Economics, however, seem to have muted the expected rush of youngsters to hockey as a result of the Olympic gold medal. The sport is too expensive for the ordinary family and more rinks are closing because of the high cost of electricity than are opening.

It is expensive at the NHL level, too. With no network television contract and no prospect of getting any, and with limited income from cable hookups, the NHL cannot survive a baseball-type free-agency arrangement.