After eight seasons of futility in the National Hockey League, the Washington Capitals made a quantum leap into eighth place overall and shattered virtually every club record of a positive nature.

It was Washington's first winning season and it resulted in the first Stanley Cup competition, as well as the first playoff victory, in the unlikely setting of Nassau Coliseum.

The Capitals swept all three games from Boston, which posted the NHL's best record; won the season series from Philadelphia, which ranked second, and did not lose to Chicago, the No. 4 club.

The team celebrated Christmas with a 14-game unbeaten streak, the last three of which were road victories in which goalie Al Jensen limited Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the New York Islanders to a goal apiece. It was a pleasant change from the double-figure streaks that had marked every previous season, since all of those were of the winless variety.

General Manager David Poile and Coach Bryan Murray were considered leading candidates for postseason awards. So were defensemen Rod Langway and Scott Stevens, and winger Bobby Gould.

Gould and the Gee Whiz Line stood tallest in the Capitals' first playoff series, which concluded Sunday with the Capitals eliminated, 3-1, by the three-time defending champion New York Islanders. Gould led all goal scorers in the series with five. He and linemates Glen Currie and Gaetan Duchesne recorded six goals and five assists.

"The biggest surprise of the season was Kid Currie's line," said Langway, the workaholic team captain. "They won a lot of games for us. There's our foundation--a line that can play against anybody in the league."

Stevens, who will join Mike Gartner, Dennis Maruk and Brian Engblom on Team Canada in the World Championships next week in West Germany, was quite a surprise himself. The youngster, tabbed for spot duty as a sixth defenseman when training camp opened in Hershey, by season's end was one of the big three with Langway and Engblom.

Jensen, after starting the season in Hershey, joined Pat Riggin as a goaltending tandem that ranked fifth in the NHL with a yield of 283 goals.

The penalty-killing unit, led by Doug Jarvis and the Gee Whiz kids, finished fourth overall with a remarkable 81.6 percent success ratio.

There were minuses, to be sure. One was the power play, which ranked 18th and produced most of the dissatisfaction among fans at Capital Centre. Too often opponents were able to take liberties because they knew the chances of paying a price were small.

"Any form of power play production in any of the four playoff games and I could envision a different outcome," Poile said. "But that was an area of concern from the time Darren Veitch went out with the broken collarbone."

The top four regular-season scorers--Maruk, Gartner, Bob Carpenter and Bengt Gustafsson--among them got only two goals and one assist in the playoffs, a principal reason, considering their part in a one-for-24 power play, that the Islanders were able to win in four games.

There were extenuating circumstances, to be sure. Gartner lost seven pounds and much of his zip fighting influenza. The bruised and battered Gustafsson was a frequent visitor to the trainer's table.

"We have to make changes and one thing we need is overall depth in every position," Poile said. "But the nucleus is there, in contrast to past years, when management must not have felt it was there. In each of the last three years, only a handful of the guys who were given the big-picture treatment in the front of the media guide were back the next year.

"This season we had 12 new faces. I'm sure we won't have more than half that next time. There are areas we must improve on, but I can see maybe 10 guys who will be here for the next half dozen years. We want to build up a Washington Capitals tradition."

Riggin is due to become a free agent by June 1, but Poile said he expected no trouble in negotiating a new contract. In event of a breakdown, any team signing Riggin would have to compensate the Capitals.

One of Poile's priority items is negotiation with Peter Andersson, a Swedish defenseman who will team with Gustafsson in the World Championships. Andersson is rated one of the world's best, but he has been reluctant to leave home.

Other prior draftees Poile expects to get playing time in Washington next year are Western League graduates Dean Evason, who had 164 points for Portland, and Jim McGeough, a 76-goal scorer with Nanaimo. Butsy Erickson, the University of Minnesota product who scored three goals for Hershey Saturday, is another in the same mold--small but talented and tough.

The Capitals will draft 14th in the first round this year and Poile cannot expect to repeat the clever picks by Max McNab and Roger Crozier that brought Carpenter and Stevens here the last two years. There are few choices left after that first-rounder, since Crozier dealt a few away to bring Ken Houston, Riggin, Gould and Randy Holt here from Calgary, as well as Ted Bulley from Chicago.

"We have to hit on our first draft choice again, but it's not realistic to think on the 14th pick we'll get anybody who can play right away," Poile said. "We'll move in a couple of people, make a trade, and that might be enough. We do need the depth to see us through until Bob Carpenter and Scott Stevens reach the high level we eventually expect.

"Next year the Flyers, Islanders and (New York) Rangers should be very close. If we're on the same level, and we should be, it will be a very entertaining season.

"Bryan Murray did an outstanding job of motivation this year. We had only a half-dozen clunkers all season, and I don't know any other team that can say that. We have nothing to hang our heads about. Home or away, we came to play."