The essence of the game, say the players, is an indefinable intuition for the flow and shape of play, a kind of "court sense" akin to that of a basketball wizard like Larry Bird.

For the novice hockey fan, the most difficult thing is learning to distinguish the clean and pleasing styles of play that lie beneath the chaotic surface of this violent sport.

To many Washingtonians, the game played in the National Hockey League, even after eight years, remains a welcome, yet mysterious sport. In a town with gourmet appreciation of football, baseball and basketball, hockey still is a specialized taste. After playing 600 NHL games, the Capitals draw only about 600 more fans a game than they did in their first season of 1974. Converting one fan a game is an arduous growth rate.

Amid hockey's maze of sticks and bodies, one needs an expert's eye to tell the difference between dumb luck and daring skill. To the hockey know-nothing, the sport seems to have all the cool geometry and precise intelligence of a kickball game at a grade school recess. What should we watch? Whom do we study?

If the Capitals had a New Year's wish, it would be that their town, devoid of NHL tradition, learn to appreciate the game as they do: not just as a Goons' Demolition Derby but as a test of tactics and skills, a blend of team styles and individual signatures scratched with sharp blades into ice.

Studying the Capitals is a bizarrely apropos way to begin doping out the NHL game. The team is in the midst of transforming its style of play--from cautiously defensive to riskily offensive. Also, the Capitals, under Coach Bryan Murray, are using a lot of young players. As a result, games are a hockey classroom.

How does the Washington sports nut who hasn't yet mastered the niceties of "head-manning the puck" begin to come to grips with this sport?

First, according to the Capitals themselves, stop worrying about the forbidding rules. Don't be concerned about the meaning of the red line, or the technicalities of penalties. Think bigger. Try to get a feeling for the entire action and the modus operandi of the teams, even if you don't know the refinements of the rule book.

Next, you'll probably never get the hockey bug by watching the sport on TV. The essence of the game, say the players, is an indefinable intuition for the flow and shape of play, a kind of "court sense" akin to that of a basketball wizard like Larry Bird.

It's the ability to take a mental photograph of the configuration of play, then, in a microsecond, develop another photo that shows you the shape of things to come an instant into the future. Above any specific single skill, that total view may be the one quality that marks the great hockey player, the best current example being Wayne (The Great) Gretzky. That total view of the ice gets lost in the translation on television.

"Everything seems too crowded on TV. You lose the sense of simultaneous action in several places at once," says Capitals acting General Manager Roger Crozier, the balding former goalie who looks more like a middle-aged mortician than a fellow who retired from the NHL only four years ago. "You also lose the sense of end-to-end speed and open ice."

What the small screen loses is the feeling, always present at the rink, that all 10 skaters immediately may flee for dear life to the other end of the ice. The possibility of a breakaway, or a two-on-one fast break--just like basketball--always is on every skater's mind.

This ability to mount an organized, simultaneous "rush" to the other end, with two or three men flying across the blueline a split second after the puck crosses into opposition territory, is at the heart of the game.

It's also one of the things the Capitals traditionally have done worst, and is the tactic Murray is convinced they must master.

"When I arrived, we were a defensive, negative hockey team that was content to dump the puck into the other end, then chase it, hoping that something good might happen," said Murray, who coached several of the current 18- to-23-year-old Capitals at Hershey. "Now, we've completely turned that approach around. I think young players want to be encouraged to attack, to score goals, to try to see what they can create.

"We try to encourage that here at practice," said Murray, outside the Fort Dupont Park rink in Northeast Washington. "We emphasize handling the puck far more, trying to stick handle the puck across the blueline instead of just blindly firing it into the (opponent's) zone. We work constantly on patterns (of getting the puck out of the defensive end) that will produce a breakout (fast-break-like) style. We have good stick handlers like Dennis Maruk who can create pressure on the opposition."

The results of Murray's change of styles were so shockingly sudden that, according to Crozier, "It all came almost too fast and too easy."

After an initial loss under Murray, the Capitals went 7-1-2 under the new coach, outscoring their stunned opponents, 54-28. The team that had begun this season 1-14 suddenly was setting a team scoring record (11 goals) against Toronto and clubbing the Flyers in Capital Centre, 10-4.

All that delicious foolishness now has abated. The league has wised up to the change in tactics and adjusted. When the Capitals get overzealous on the attack, they find themselves "pinched" in the offensive end and hindered in getting back on defense. In a memorable pre-Christmas present, the Capitals watched the Boston Bruins score six straight goals in one horrid period as Washington perpetually was caught a man short by Boston's trap-'em-then-go-back-the-other-way plot.

The Capitals' New Year's resolution is to learn how to blend their new creativity with proper prudence.

In many ways, the style of the best hockey teams is a difficult blending of opposites. Finesse and violence, for example. The current Capitals, for instance, probably have the skill required of a playoff team, but they have an almost total lack of force, especially in the defensive end with Rick Green injured.

"We can't be too concerned right now about being intimidated, because it's going to happen, even in our own building, sometimes," said Murray last week after his team had been manhandled, infuriated and beaten badly by the Chicago Black Hawks. "When we get mad and think more about retaliating than playing hockey, we're useless. We have to wait and pick our spots to get even."

Basically, the Capitals lack an enforcer.

"Yes," agreed Murray. "There's no doubt that intimidation may be part of why we lose on the road."

Another of hockey's team mysteries is the way a club has a strong collective sense of its own adequacy or inadequacy. Few sports have more obvious and total shifts of emotion and momentum in midcontest.

"This may be the ultimate 'team' game," said the Capitals' director of player recruitment, Jack Button. "Emotions and psychological factors seem to run right through your bench. You can feel it. Because of the pace of play and the demand for multiple lines (skaters work in "shifts" that seldom last more than two minutes each), a team is extremely aware of its weakest link, or its weakest line. You may only have five on the ice at once, but you've got to have 15 players that you trust in order to be great."

For now, as has always been the case, the baby-faced Capitals seem almost uniquely prone to team-wide cases of the jitters. On the bench, they look like worried kids, always glancing at the overhead scoreboard as though, in 10 seconds, they had forgotten the score. Capital mistakes and Capital heroics often seem to come in bursts, the good, the bad and the ugly all feeding on themselves. "In time," said Button optimistically, "these young players will develop into the leaders who can keep a team from panicking."

But not yet.

Part of that umbilical sense of each other that links an outstanding team is experience, particularly the constant chatter among teammates that comes from familiarity. "You have to talk to your defensemen," said goalie Dave Parro. "Yell, 'Stand 'em up,' to tell them to attack the other skaters as they cross the blueline. Or yell 'reverse' to make them attack the puck handler and force the other team to reverse the direction of the flow (of their play)."

The Capitals are, at present, what Murray calls "a very quiet hockey team." Or, as defenseman Greg Theberge says, "The communication should improve after Christmas. Some of us haven't known each other very long."

Even if, as Button claims, hockey really is the quintessential team game, where the worth of the group often adds up to more than the sum of its parts, it's also a sport of dramatically different skills coexisting on the ice together.

Along these lines, the Capitals provide excellent illustrations because many of them are players of one or two skills.

If you want to know what a real 100-mile-per-hour-plus slap shot looks like, then watch Mike Gartner wind up from the point. Also, Gartner is a fluid, natural skater, almost as graceful and energy-conserving as Gaetan Duchesne, the Frenchman who roams the ice with long, powerful strides.

If you want to see savvy, pluck, a quick wrist shot and an intuitive knack for finding the net, then study 5-foot-7 high scorer "Pee Wee" Maruk as he infuriates defenses by sneaking in and out of the crease, trying to make trouble around the net before he can be smashed.

In some ways, Maruk, the only 50-goal scorer in the club's history, is the perfect Capital. With his Fu Manchu mustache and stubble beard, Maruk looks more comic than mean, and too small to boot. He's no great fighter; he's a good forechecker but an indifferent backchecker-- analogous to a small forward in basketball who loves offensive rebounds, which mean points, but not the drudgery of defensive rebounding.

Above all, however, Maruk, with his tiny, chopping strides, is a man of limited talents who is making the most of every gesture. "I have an intuition about how to be in the right spot at the right time," he said. "If something tells me to go to that spot, I fight to get there, even if it doesn't seem like there's much reason to go there. And once I get there, I stay there that extra second. Then, the puck seems to find me."

If your taste is for the unselfish, both-ends-of-the-rink pro--a sort of tough, handsome, boyish Dudley Do-Right who's not a phony, then learn to appreciate Ryan Walter, the team's 23-year-old captain.

Although not a superstar, Walter is perhaps the only Capital who blends skill, concentration, size and pure cussedness to a sufficient degree that he might be cited as a model player. Spare the stick and spoil the opponent might be Walter's motto; he leads the team in penalty minutes, although he's considered a scrupulously clean player.

The youngest captain in NHL history (at 21), he always will pass the puck, but never the buck; no mucking job on the boards or in a fight is too dirty for him. If it's part of commanding a little respect for the team, he'll volunteer.

"Watch me and you won't see anything flashy," he said with a laugh. "I think I'm good at finishing checks, taking a guy completely out of the play and into the boards. Players get mesmerized by the puck, just like the fans, and forget to finish their part of the play . . . If I have a weakness, it's that when things are going badly, I try too hard."

If you want to watch a probable future all-star while he is still a baby, then analyze that famous teen-ager Bobby Carpenter. When the 18-year-old is in the vicinity of the puck, he already is a natural; he's got the moves and the swift, though not yet muscular, style. Away from the puck, he still often is a lost soul, getting in his own and others' way.

Even his best position--center (his strong preference) or the less-demanding left wing (where he's had his best games)--isn't known yet. Last week, Carpenter, racing around the rink with youthful hustle, but a general lack of intuitive sense of where he was, slipped, knocked himself down, and, embarrassingly, crashed to a halt in the middle of the Boston Bruin net. Today, Carpenter scores his whole body; tomorrow, the puck.

If you want to identify a typical European finesse player--the guy who plays the game the "right" way with a minimum of contact and a maximum amount of skating and passing--hone in on Bengt Gustafsson. The popular right wing plays with a plastic shield over his face because, in the NHL, it always is open season on Swedes whom Canadian-born players love to bash while refs see no evil.

Finally, if you want to watch the most vital man on the ice, check out the goaltender--Parro, the kid from Saskatchewan who Crozier says "has the fastest glove hand in the league."

It matters not how the other Capitals play if Parro has a lousy night. He is both the last line of defense, when he's good, and the weakest link in the chain, when he's not. Parro is a "stand-up"-style tender who seldom is beaten high. His opposite is flamboyant (and injured) goalie Mike Palmateer, who epitomizes the spectacular "flopper" style, throwing himself all over the ice stopping low shots, but leaving himself a bit vulnerable to high shots or rebounds.

Hockey, according to men like Crozier and Button, is a sport of chemistry and intuition, of flow and emotion. It also is, in many respects, a sport that is not what it seems. Sit with the Capitals' brain trust--Crozier, Button and Assistant Coach Yvon Labre--during play and what you see in a constant succession of penciled diagrams and impromptu debates about which player should have "read" the pattern of movement on the ice and anticipated it in a certain way.

"The longer you watch the game," said Crozier, "the less you see that element of luck and the more you see skill everywhere."

Even off the ice, the Capitals are not entirely what they seem. Several weeks ago, Walter and two teammates took a trip to Children's Hospital to help cheer up kids at Thanksgiving. Walter was so moved that he helped arrange for almost all of the team to make a similar visit the week before Christmas.

The Capitals flew back from a night-game victory in New York, and, on short sleep, roamed through the halls of Children's Hospital, decked out in their red-white-and-blue uniform tops. They quickly fell into the spirit of the occasion, prodding smiles out of sober young faces with unselfconscious jokes. "In these silly jerseys, we look like a bunch of walking Christmas trees, don't we?" Walter asked a little boy.

The Capitals paraded through the halls, calling out goofy hockey marching orders to each other, like, "Forecheck," or "Backcheck."

"Most of the years I played on this team," said Labre, an original Capital who retired after last season, "we were clowns on the ice.

"Now," he said, watching this young team still finding its style and its collective personality, "we've finally reached the point where we're only clowns off it."