If the Washington Capitals fail to gain expected tax relief from the Prince George's County Council Tuesday, the probable alternative is a merger with the New Jersey Devils, The New York Times reported yesterday.

In a story in its New Jersey editions, the Times said that Capitals owner Abe Pollin and John McMullen, the Devils' principal owner, each acknowledged Friday that negotiations for such a merger have been under way for several weeks.

"We will definitely make a deal if Pollin doesn't get what he wants (the reduction of the county amusement tax from 10 percent to one-half of 1 percent)," the Times quoted McMullen as saying.

County Executive Lawrence Hogan has said he favors the tax relief for the Capitals and it has been reported that as many as 10 of the council's 11 members also favor such legislation.

The reduction of the amusement tax was one of four conditions set by Pollin and four potential investors under which the Capitals would remain in Washington. Otherwise, Pollin said, the Capitals would be sold and moved to another city, merged with another team or dissolved.

Pollin says he has lost $20 million in the franchise's eight-year existence.

Two of the conditions were met by Friday's deadline: a sellout of the first 10 regular-season games and a one-third reduction of rental at Capital Centre.

The Capitals were more than 2,000 season tickets short of reaching terms of the fourth condition--the sale of 7,500 season tickets--when the 30-day deadline expired. Because the county council does not meet until Tuesday, the deadline was extended until then.

Although the Times story could be interpreted to mean that Pollin has decided to operate the team here this season with a favorable vote from the council, Pollin stopped short of confirming that to the Times. "I have to make a decision then," he said. "I'm still looking for a season-ticket sale of 7,500."

NHL President John Ziegler has said the Capitals have an obligation to operate this season. He called a merger "a Herculean task. It takes hours, days, weeks, months of preparation going in."

Pollin, McMullen and Ziegler were unavailable yesterday and no other Capitals officials would either confirm or deny that merger talks have been going on for several weeks. When asked recently by The Washington Post whether such talks were occuring, both Pollin and McMullen denied it, as has Ziegler.

Pollin said last week that his club's chances of moving intact were diminishing because of the time element but said that the other options remained viable.

McMullen, according to the Times, said Friday that he had met personally with Pollin more than two months ago at an NHL Board of Governors meeting and had done so several times since then.

Pollin did not attend the June board meeting in Toronto, sending alternative governor Peter O'Malley in his place.

A week ago, McMullen said he had not even spoken to Pollin about the possibility of such a merger, saying: "His objective is to keep the team in the capital, and that's the best thing."