"Save the Caps. Can I help you?"

Twenty-one phones have been ringing intermittently for four hours in this claustrophobic conference room in Capital Centre and each is answered the same way: "Save the Caps . . ."

Seven people are answering the phones. Some are volunteers, some are from the Capital Centre staff.

Posters of John Denver and Sugar Ray Leonard stare from the walls, but the blackboard is what everybody watches. The number 85,000 is written on the board; that's how many individual tickets must be sold for the first 10 games. And the board also tells us that nowhere near that number have been sold.

Saving hockey in Washington is no easy task. The air conditioner even broke down for a few minutes.

Sybil Hindin and Steve Gearhart, organizers of the Save the Caps organization, are among the seven in the room.

"Would you like to buy some season tickets?" Hindin asks Gearhart between calls. Then, she adds: "Would Abe Pollin like to buy some season tickets?"

Incredibly, Pollin has just entered the room.

"Would you like to buy some season tickets, Mr. Pollin?" several of the seven ask in unison.

"They (the Capitals) give me a few," replies Pollin, the owner of the building and the team.

Twelve days have passed since Pollin set the ground rules on whether the Capitals are to be or not to be. The question now is: can such games as Hartford (Nov. 7) and Calgary (Nov. 16) sell out, and can more than 3,000 season tickets be sold in less than three weeks?

"The initial groundswell has died down considerably," says Lou Corletto, the Capitals' public relations director. "Not many people are thinking about hockey in 96 degree, 87 percent humidity weather."

But some are, enough to keep the phones ringing. Barbara Harris of Alexandria calls to buy tickets to the Islanders game.

"The Islanders bring out the best in the Capitals," she says. "Their games are always well-played with very few fouls. They are great games."

Robert Moran wants season tickets, but his "new job entails a lot of travel," so he buys tickets only for the first 10 games. He says most of the players in his hockey league go to all the games. It is a league for men aged 35-60.

"Don't laugh," he says. "Some of those older guys can really play."

Opening night against Philadelphia Oct. 9 is selling best among the first 10 games, with the Islander game second and Montreal third. New Jersey vs. Washington, a good basketball rivalry, is a dud, so far, in hockey. The Capitals will play the new New Jersey Devils for the first time Nov. 10.

Debbie Angus, director of sales, isn't worried. She rushes from phone to phone, rescuing any stuttering volunteer who doesn't know if Seat 21 in Section 207 can be guaranteed to a prospective season ticket buyer. She also is expecting a baby in September.

"Everyone keeps saying it's going to happen on opening night," she says.

John Wydo of Silver Spring isn't worrying, either.

"When it gets close to the deadline, people will come through," he says, having called to buy some single-game tickets. "It's like in school, when you have a project due and you don't do it until the last minute."

Bogus phone calls abound, the totals on the blackboard slowly increase and more volunteers wander in. Lou Strudler, marketing director, says a worker will be needed for each of the 21 phones by 6 p.m., right after the day's sales figures are reported on the television sports shows.

Gearhart says he never dreamed of such a scene when he began Save the Caps about a month ago.

"I thought I'd call people for about a week and that would be the end of it," he says, contemplating which of three phones to answer.

"I was standing outside the old-timers baseball game (July 19 at RFK Stadium) in the pouring rain and people were stopping to sign petitions," Hindin says. "Little kids were grabbing their fathers, telling them, 'You better sign, Daddy; I want the Caps.' "

One caller begins by complaining about the parking at last year's Nets-Bullets playoff game. He wants to know how parking will be handled if the first 10 Capitals games are, indeed, sold out. "I mean I want to buy season tickets, but . . ."

Another caller has a friend coming from Oakland who has not seen hockey since the California Golden Seals left town in 1976. Stuart Simms, who plays in the National Novice Hockey League, calls to order more tickets to the Flyers game, and conducts a little recruiting while he's at it.

"Most of our games are real late, so you can watch the Caps and then go play in our games," he says. "Games might overlap a couple times, though."

About 20 percent of the 4,380 season tickets sold have been new orders, rather than renewals. Through Friday, another 624 people had ordered a 10-game package. Strudler says four or five area companies might buy enough tickets to ensure sellouts, if fans fall a couple thousand shy for any of the 10 games.

"We're going to do it, period," says Mary Fleming, a sales representative. "There's just no two ways about it."

Several callers wonder whether their money will be refunded if the Capitals are no more.

Pollin, incensed by a newspaper article, leaves the room as quickly as he entered.

Sandwiches and drinks are brought in; the people in the room, their sleeves rolled up and moving sluggishly, resemble a jury after two weeks of deliberation.

And nobody is buying tickets to see Hartford.

Although he lives in Norfolk, John Ramey calls to buy tickets to three of the first 10 games.

"I'm not going to be interested in the NHL any more if the Capitals aren't in it, and I love hockey," he says. "I just hope the Capitals don't become too good, because I want to attend the University of Maryland in a couple years, and I don't want the Caps to become like the Redskins, where you can't even get a ticket."

With such optimism, Ramey should be on the other end of the phone.