For eight years, as the Washington Capitals challenged the New York Mets as one of the slowest-starting expansion teams ever, Al Groth and Carl Stein sat patiently in Section 211, Row AA, at Capital Centre, waiting for the victories.

Groth, a soft-spoken computer operator, sat in Seat 22 and meticulously registered every possible statistic in a clear, neat hand. Stein, a slender, ebullient supply officer for the Maryland State Police, sat in Seat 21 and gave a running play-by-play.

For eight years, through 375 losses, 158 of them at home, the news was dismal. Groth's statistics, no matter how careful the writing, never looked very encouraging. Stein's announcing, despite its unflagging enthusiasm, never contained much good news, either.

Groth and Stein drive to every home game from their homes in Baltimore, 30 miles each way. Over the years, after sitting together through nearly every Capitals home game, after experiencing together night after night of disaster on ice, they have developed the repartee and shared history of a married couple.

"In the beginning, we paid $260 for a season ticket," said Groth as he penciled in a percentage.

"It's $420 now and we don't even get a discount for signing up early anymore," said Stein in a broadcasting school tenor. "But, believe me, we don't complain. I'm so crazy about hockey, I'd pay anything. Especially now that they're winning."

Halfway through the first period last night, it was becoming clear that the Philadelphia Flyers were threatening the Capitals' 14-game unbeaten streak in front of 18,130 fans who offered their team both a standing ovation and a sold-out arena.

"Of course, I'd pay even if they were losing again," Stein added.

"No reason why not," Groth said as he adjusted his binoculars.

"We just love hockey, that's it," said Stein.

Groth nodded.

Both men had a tough time remembering the last home game either one had missed. And then it came to Stein.

"Right. I missed one last year," he said. "Remember that real big snowstorm when the plane crashed? Well, I stayed home that night."

Down near the ice, Jan Verrey of Arlington sits next to the penalty box. Even though pucks, players and officials regularly carom off the Plexiglas just a few feet from her face, Verrey calls hers the "safest seat in the house." She has been a season ticket holder since the Capitals' first season, 1974-75, the season they went 8-67-5.

"I almost gave up my season ticket," Verrey said as an official rammed into the glass. "I got tired of losing all the time. But I felt a little bad. I wanted the Caps to stay around, so I bought another ticket. I love winning almost as much as I love screaming."

Up the aisle, Larry King, the radio talk-show host and a former roller hockey player with Sandy Koufax in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y., eyed the ice.

"I grew up on the Rangers," said King. "I love hockey. Ever since I moved to Washington five years ago, I see them all. I go on the air at midnight, so I come to the games and leave with about two minutes left to make it to the studio.

"The first time I came here, the Caps were playing the Rangers. I rooted for the Rangers. I guess it was the blue shirts. Then I realized I didn't know any of the players and pretty soon it was all Caps."