From the distance of nearly two years, or 1 1/2 NHL seasons, Bobby Carpenter looked back at high school hockey, his last stop before life in the big time.

"It's the play that's so different," he said. "If I tried some of the plays we used in high school, I'd get killed out there. The speed. They're so much quicker. And the intensity. In high school, say you play some college jayvee team. If you don't win, nobody much cares. Nobody's in the stands. But here, it's all hockey."

All hockey, living the game, is what Bobby Carpenter says he always wanted to do. His next step is to "feel like I'm part of winning," for the Washington Capitals, who play at Buffalo tonight at 7:30.

"I want to contribute to the team," said Carpenter. "It's hard right now, because I am not playing as well as I could. I'm trying to keep happy and not press too much. Maybe it's going to take awhile to adjust before I know just what I can do."

Hockey's everyday adjustments did not hit Carpenter until after his first training camp. When the Capitals sent half the squad to Europe while the rest stayed in Hershey, Carpenter had an opportunity to stand out.

"I had played in Europe before, and with everything on a big ice surface like I was used to, I got the chance to score some goals and look good early in the year."

But then came the sheer mathematics of life as a pro.

"In high school, you play 18 games. If you make the playoffs, 22 games," Carpenter said. "My last year, we didn't make the playoffs. Even in three years of high school, you don't play as many games as you do here. You can't compare it."

Capitals Coach Bryan Murray agrees. "Part of junior hockey, the experience of traveling, all the work part, the paying your dues, are the things Bobby missed," he said. "The schooling suffers for those kids in junior, but when--if--you make the NHL, it's been great training.

"When I met Bob, I found a pretty good kid, receptive to what we wanted, but with some problems," Murray said. "He probably expected to come in and be able to just do his own thing. He hadn't been taught the defensive responsibilities of hockey."

Carpenter did not expect to find himself adjusting to the NHL's marathon schedule at age 19. Although his senior year at St. John's Prep in Massachusetts was the kind of publicity whirl any politico would envy, Carpenter thought the idea of going from high school to the professional ranks "was so farfetched, I didn't even think about it."

He was busy thinking about college applications at that point, waiting until exams were over to make decisions.

Until then, Carpenter had paid scant attention to the particulars of the NHL, "except for the Bruins. I used to go watch them and think, I play better than that, I could play for them."

He was accepted at Harvard, but then leaned toward Providence College. "I figured I'd be in college, playing hockey, yeah, at least two years," he said.

"My parents wanted me to go to school but they were happy to back me 100 percent either way."

The senior Carpenters wound up backing him to Washington. Originally, he had expected to be taken by the Hartford Whalers. "We looked into it, talked to people, were all ready," he said. "And then it changed.

"I didn't know anything about the Washington Capitals when I was drafted (in June, 1981). I couldn't name one player or one coach."

Even after the farfetched had become reality, Carpenter wasn't sure what to expect.

"I really didn't know what to expect. Everybody was telling me different things," he said. Getting to training camp was actually a relief. "All I had to do was play hockey. No school or other things."

In Carpenter's second season, Murray now sees a player who has "matured as a person, improved as a player, but is not yet the consistent player he could become."

Carpenter admits he is not playing as well as he wants to. "I don't like to use the word slump, because most people say it's all mental," he said. "I know I'm not playing to the best of my ability." He pauses, then says slowly, a bit louder, "I know I can do better.

"I concentrate, completely, on the game. Some nights, I feel great physically, but I lose track of what's going on. I really don't know what it is."

Rule out personal problems. Carpenter sees his parents frequently enough ("it's just an eight-hour drive.") and his girlfriend, also back in Massachusetts, flies down for occasional games.

He will resume classes at the University of Maryland this week--"just Monday nights, three hours of Accounting II"--and says eventually he will get a degree, probably in a business-related area.

"I try to stay happy," he said again. "I don't let anything bother me. If it's a girlfriend or something, I can put it aside. It's all hockey. I know this is only good for about 10 years, so everything's hockey."

Mike Gartner, Carpenter's linemate and good friend, said Carpenter's first year "showed him what he has to do and all the things not to do. It was just one year, but in experience, that year makes all the difference."

Gartner seems untroubled by Carpenter's less-than-spectacular performance this season.

"I think Bobby would be the first to admit he could play better. But he showed the first year he can handle being tested. When he came right from high school, I was surprised at the step he took. And he will get back."

Carpenter wondered how long the process will take. "Maybe a season or two," he said. "Everybody adjusts from other leagues, though. Look at Milan (Novy). He's going through it."

Novy, who played for the Czech National Team, is in his first NHL season, as is rookie Scott Stevens.

"But they've lived the life. Scott was in juniors, with all the travel, all the games," Carpenter said. "He knows. This is just upgraded."

When will Carpenter be at ease with the adjustment, stretching toward his full potential?

He smiled. "I hope tomorrow, but I don't know."