It happened almost exactly the way the Capitals had feared, this latest click of the Wayne Gretzky scoring machine last night. Hockey's preeminent player was straying by himself, nowhere close to the puck, one instant; the next he had his 81st goal. Anyone in Capital Centre who sneezed missed the second-period sequence.

"So sneaky," Rick Green had said. "Floating up around center ice all the time for the breakaway pass. There's no heavy going for him. There's no corner work, nothing along the boards. He just kinda stays in the middle of the area, although he does get behind the net sometimes. You won't see him making use of his body in any way. Just strictly . . . "

Green's voice trailed off, though he surely would have added, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm, that Gretzky is the greatest one-dimensional athlete in hockey, very likely in all of sport. That flick justified another full-house flock in another NHL arena.

Style sells, Rick.

With amazing grace, Gretzky whistled a deflection past Dave Parro. With amazing foresight, or luck, he got into position to make it, for the play began with Gretzky about as far away from the puck as he possibly could be and still be on the ice.

From the corner of the ice to Parro's left, a knot of Capitals and Oilers swatted at the puck. Gretzky was all the way across the rink, not far from the Edmonton bench. But when Washington's Gaetan Duchesne got set for a pass goal-hanging Gretzky glided toward midice, about 12 yards directly in front of Parro.

All of a sudden, as if by command, the puck was on Gretzky's stick. Eyes that move swifter than these saw the Oilers' Dave Lumley deflect the puck from Duchesne. Whatever, it scooted right for Wondrous Wayne. Naturally, he timed it perfectly, controlled it and sent it 90 degrees off course and whistling by the startled Parro.

To borrow a baseball line, Parro might have said it sounded high.

The pregame fascination had been how to stop this Gretzky gorge, if in fact that could be done. He had, after all, been the NHL's player of the month for October, November, December and January.

"Every time he gets the puck," Dennis Maruk said, "if there's a guy on him, take him out. Not anything dirty, but hit him. Next guy goes out and if he gets the puck, hit him again. Make sure the other guys are covered, but every time he gets a chance at the puck, just stick the body on him."

That's much easier to say than do.

"I remember a couple times trying to check him," Green said, "thinking I got him beat, that he can't possibly get the puck past my body. But sure enough, he puts the puck through my legs . . . just perfect timing. I just happened to move my legs, and as soon as I moved 'em he made the pass."

It was a goal by Gretzky that excited the Capital Centre sellout; it was an assist by Gretzky about midway through the third period that sent the fans home as frustrated as they were thrilled. With the Oilers shorthanded, he sent a dazzling pass to Jari Kurri, who jabbed the third goal by Parro.

Many fans were fighting traffic when Gretzky slapped home a empty-net goal in the last 30 seconds. Naturally, it hit the center of the net.

"At the end of the year," he said later, "they don't ask you how, but how many."

He smiled as he sipped beer. Gorgeous Gretzky on the ice; gracious Gretzky off it.

That judgment comes from the Redskins' Joe Theismann.

"Both of us were on the dias at a dinner when I was playing in Canada," Theismann said. "He was 10 at the time. We've stayed in touch over the years. People say he can't be that nice. But he is. He's an all-American"--Theismann caught himself, smiled, and made a geographical course correction--"an all-North American."

After the Oilers' 4-1 victory, Theismann was among the first well-wishers to reach Gretzky. And as the herd of reporters trooped toward his locker, over pads and bags, Gretzky could be seen motioning in Theismann's direction and ordering an attendant to "make sure he gets a stick."

A few moments later, Gretzky admitted publicly that the very real chance of reaching what was considered impossible until he burst on the scene, 100 goals and 200 points, has him excited. He is 18 shy of the goal record and 19 shy of the point mark, with 14 games left.

"Close enough now to think about it," he said, "because no one has ever done it before. If it comes, it'll be because everybody else is helping me." He smiled and said, "Didn't aim that last one"--the open net goal--"If I had, I'd have missed."

Gretzky's shadow much of the game was Bengt Gustafsson, who had held him relatively in check during that 6-6 Capital Center tie earlier in the season that only a few thousand fought a snowstorm to see. Gustafsson overcame cracked ribs to play and, astonishingly, scored before Gretzky.

"Got to pick him up early," Gustafsson had said. "Let up on your offense a bit, go for him as soon as the puck gets lose."

His spirit was such that when Gretzky skated to the bench once Gustafsson was close enough to open the door for him. Nobody stays glued to Gretzky for long; eventually, he finds a way to make his team win.

And when somebody asked if he thought the records he will establish this season will stand forever, Gretzky paused and said they are made to be broken, that he'll take a whack at it himself next year.