Mike Palmateer came to Washington billed as the man who could lead the Capitals into the playoffs. Not just a point or two away, but actually into the fray with his roaming, flopping style of goaltending.

Now, less than two years later, Palmateer is regarded by some as a flop in the more literal sense. He suffered a string of injuries throughout the second half of the 1980-81 season, and this year crushed some bone in his right knee during training camp when he collided with then-teammate Tim Tookey.

Palmateer last played Nov. 28. His damaged knee was operated on twice by Toronto surgeon Robert Jackson. "He's the best man around with the 'scope (arthroscope)," Palmateer said. "He can repair anything."

In Palmateer's case, the repair job involved removal of floating cartilage that was grating against the bone. Even after the operations, says Palmateer, the bones "became so rough from rubbing against each other, the knee would swell up. The only way to get it down was to rest."

And that's all Palmateer has done since December, anticipating the rehabilitation therapy he will start in a few weeks. "My main concern is keeping myself in shape, building myself up over the summer," he said. "I'm not used to just sitting around for months on end."

No one who's ever seen the acrobatic Palmateer in motion would argue. His flamboyant style features such nongoalie moves as a skate to the blue--maybe even red--line, body checking the opposition and dropping his glove or stick while making a save.

"Some nights, our defensemen had to spend more time retrieving Mike's equipment than playing hockey," said former Capitals coach Gary Green, not entirely amused. "That style of his just isn't seen in the NHL. Mike's become more of a performer than a goaltender at times."

Green and Palmateer disagreed about the goalie's practices at practice, too. Palmateer made it plain he did not want to burn himself out; Green felt he was unfair to the rest of the team.

"Once a winger takes a shot, he doesn't want to see the goalie step aside and give him the whole net. That's not doing either one of them any good," Green said. "A goalie shouldn't cop out."

Palmateer contends he doesn't want to risk being hurt by a puck at practice, to which Green retorts, "Then he should have become a forward long ago. When a guy's being paid nearly $200,000 a year, he ought to be at practice."

Earlier in the season, there were reports that the Capitals' organization had soured on Palmateer and was trying to trade him. Management now denies that; General Manager Roger Crozier said earlier in the week the team is counting on Palmateer's return next season and he is still very much in the Capitals' plans.

Bryan Murray, who replaced Green last fall, said he has had no problems with Palmateer. "Gary had told me Mike wasn't a practice goalie, but when I arrived, I indicated to him what sort of work habits I expected," he said. "He's not the kind of guy who will push himself in practice beyond all limits, but he made the effort for me."

The Palmateer-Green chemistry may have been the real problem. Since Murray's arrival, Palmateer claims to be more at ease, and says of Murray, "He's not a fancy coach, but a good, basic one."

Murray sees Palmateer as a key to "progress" for the team. "The only way this organization can get anywhere is to have more than one quality goalie available," he said. "In the past, he's proven himself. Now he just has to come back from this knee problem. Part of the reason he was told to take the rest of the season off is to get that knee all ready for next year."

Palmateer has suffered knee trouble before, which is why he did not seek medical help for the training camp injury sooner. "I didn't know it was anything serious, just that I was in pain," he said. "I couldn't fall on that leg (in dropping to stop a puck) so I would drop on the other one, and kick my right out backwards, then twist my body around to grab (the puck).

"I could walk normally, and skate, but there was always the swelling. Ridiculous to play like that, right?"

Murray knew nothing about the problem, and says, "All he indicated to me was that he was trying to change his style a little bit, to stay on his feet more. Of course, with the way he plays, it's also possible that one quick movement might have aggravated the injury."

So Mike Palmateer, the money goalie out of Toronto who once was capable, in Green's words, "of singlehandedly standing the Islanders or Flyers on their ears," is watching his teammates' annual playoff push from the players' lounge instead of the crease.

To occupy some of his time, he has enrolled in Prince George's Community College, taking a business course two nights a week. "It's great because it's only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the nights we don't have games," he said. Occasionally, he will leave his home in Upper Marlboro for dinner in downtown Washington, or a visit to Georgetown or the Smithsonian.

Palmateer, who is in the second year of a three-year-plus-one (option year) contract, is not worried about the long road back, or about his team's even longer hike to credibility.

"If I had to worry about my return, the way I go about it would be all wrong," he said. "I'm constantly trying to improve. I always play better when I play a lot.

"Maybe I haven't played as aggressively or consistently as I'd like. But when I play and I'm not hurt, I'm great. Once I get back in the nets, I'll be great again, and then, who knows?"