He floated into town on a cloud of publicity and cries of "playoff time" for the going-nowhere Capitals. He guaranteed they'd be in the playoffs. Promises, promises. Just who was this masked man from Toronto anyway?

Mike Palmateer, armed with a "big ticket" salary and a repertoire of saves that resembled a modern dance routine, never did lead the Capitals from hockey's nether regions into the land of respectability. A little more than two years after he left the Maple Leafs because of a contract dispute, he is back in Toronto, stopping pucks to standing ovations in Maple Leaf Gardens.

Against Boston last week, he halted 37 shots, although he said, "If it wasn't at least 48, they're not counting. I'm off to a really good start."

Had Palmateer remained in Washington, it is doubtful he would have had any kind of start. Last season he played just 11 games and spent the rest of the time nursing a knee injured in training camp. "I figured they might trade me," he said. "I just had a feeling."

The feeling was so strong he put his suburban Maryland house up for sale in April. But he didn't go anywhere until late summer. Even then, the possibility of going back to his native Toronto had not occurred to him.

"I thought I'd go somewhere, but you never expect to go back to a team that traded you," he said.

One rumor suggested he might go to Detroit, but then the Toronto deal was announced.

"I felt he was fine as far as wanting to play," said David Poile, the Capitals' general manager. "But the club had gone out and dealt for Pat Riggin (from Calgary) and we had Dave Parro. That's two goalies. The logical thing to do was trade Palmateer."

How did Palmateer tumble from designated savior to bit player?

"When I came here, it was like I was going to save the day for them," he said. "At least here (Toronto) they know I'm not a miracle man."

His first year in Washington, he played 49 games and says now, "I was the best goalie in the league, especially during that playoff drive stretch." Modesty is not a Palmateer flaw.

There had been friction between Palmateer and former coach Gary Green last season; some teammates privately thought the goalie was "a jerk," citing his outsized ego and lack of team interest.

"I had bad games, injuries," he said. "But they kept sticking with me and when they needed a big game, I'd be there." When he did have a "good game," Palmateer said, he never got the credit, "but if we lost, the goalie always got the blame."

When he first came to Washington, Palmateer said he welcomed being able to walk the streets without the recognition he always met in Toronto. But Gord Stellick, Toronto executive assistant, says, "Mike was a celebrity here, and I think he secretly missed the attention." Last week, Palmateer spoke gratefully of the Toronto media blitz.

"I get more ink here in a day than in Washington all year," he said. "I'm playing great, as great as during the (1978) Islanders-Toronto semifinals" when Palmateer, in his words, "stood the Islanders on their ear."

But even with Palmateer's recent success, Poile said, he has no second thoughts about the deal.

"He's doing well now, but I don't know how long that will go on," he said. "I know he would not have played in Washington."

But Toronto wanted him. In fact, the Maple Leafs inquired about a deal last November. "We discussed it with (former acting general manager) Roger Crozier," said Stellick. "Our concern was that he was damaged goods (Palmateer's right knee required two operations to remove floating cartilage and his complete return to hockey was questionable), so the talk sort of died out."

But it began again when Gerry McNamara, Toronto general manager, learned Poile wanted to trade his third goalie.

"We were fairly close to making a deal a year ago," McNamara said. "I was definitely interested." So Palmateer went to the Maple Leafs conditionally, based upon his performance in training camp, for "future considerations."

"Washington was very fair in what we worked out," McNamara said. "As a result, we could have sent him back (to the Capitals) within a month."

At training camp, Palmateer skated a little, took perhaps five minutes of shots a day and swam to strengthen his knee. He didn't scrimmage until the last week of camp, and played just half of each of the last two exhibitions, both against Buffalo.

"At that point, my leg wasn't ready to be tested," Palmateer said. "I had to play two games, back to back, and I knew if I didn't play well, I could go back to the Capitals. It was tough to judge how I would do."

But Palmateer would not return to Washington. The Capitals are paying part of his salary, although Poile declined to divulge details, saying only, "There are other things involved." And Washington will not receive future considerations from Toronto.

"Nobody else really wanted him," Stellick said. "He was already iffy, since he hadn't played in a year. A real liability. But as training camp went on, we decided to assume the risk. We wanted our goalkeeper back."

Palmateer's knee remains a question mark. "He does have to ice pack it after every game," Stellick said. "Our doctor's prognosis wasn't quite a clean bill of health. The chance of trouble is always going to be there. We just have to take certain precautions."

One such measure that pleases Palmateer is that he isn't required to practice as much as the average goalie. His distaste for practice was one cause of friction in Washington, because Green felt a goalie who didn't practice wasn't being fair to his teammates.

"I'm not crazy about practice," Palmateer said. "I just do not practice the way I play. It's not all that important. Other goalies thrive on that work. But I need rest after a game."

Toronto Coach Mike Nykoluk doesn't mind that Palmateer skips the game-day skate and doesn't show up the morning after a game. "When a goalie comes in and gives all he's got, helping the defensemen, I don't mind that he misses the odd practice. And the players understand that he's got a gimpy leg. He gives enough."

Palmateer is usually described, accurately, as cocky. But McNamara sees a softening in his manner. "He's more mature, more businesslike. It's written on his face. He has a goal and he wants to reach it."

The new Mike Palmateer, if that's what he is, actually requested a quick trip to the minors during the early part of the season. "I didn't want to go into an NHL game and blow it, and I thought if I could get in a game, I'd be okay," he said. He played two games for the Leafs' St. Catharines club, and came back, as Nykoluk said, "a hot goalie."

He's determined to make good back home, perhaps because he realizes he's got to come back; there probably aren't many more chances left.

Such singleminded determination wasn't in evidence in Washington.

There was the time in training camp at Hershey, Pa., when Palmateer repeatedly fired pucks at the plexiglass surrounding the scorers' table, taking shots till he broke it.

In Vancouver early last season, when the Capitals' equipment was unloaded, a bag belonging to Palmateer contained his scuba diving gear, which he had brought to get repaired. A trainer for Pittsburgh, playing the Canucks that night, delighted in spreading word that the Capitals were a "country club" organization.

"He's a lunatic," a former teammate once said.

But he can play hockey, stand a team "on its ear" when he chooses to do so. Any regrets about leaving Washington?

"Not one," he said. "Think maybe I was born blue and white."