President Ronald Reagan took a lesson in the intricacies of swinging a hockey stick yesterday when the Washington Capitals, always seeking another season ticket holder, visited the White House Rose Garden. No one is saying whether Reagan opted for a ticket, but team captain Rod Langway did brief him on puck-handling details.

"We hear you were a pretty good athlete in your day," said Langway, whose unbeaten team meets the other White House visitors, the U.S. Olympic hockey team, at Capital Centre tonight. Reagan watched Langway send the puck along an artificial ice surface at Olympic goaltender Bob Mason, then tried a shot himself. When the puck easily beat Mason, the president quipped, "You'll never see me hit a puck again."

Reagan was presented with jerseys from both teams, as well as a jar of jelly beans from the Olympians and a puck inscribed, "The puck stops here," from the Capitals.

He acknowledged the rise of Washington, 7-0-2 in the preseason. "Last year you were great," he said. "And this year you'll be even better." But he declined to choose between the Capitals and Olympians in tonight's 7:30 game, saying, "In a sense, both are hometown teams, and I'm not going to pick a favorite. In politics it's called fence sitting."

Neither David Poile, the Capitals' general manager, nor Coach Bryan Murray could be accused of that.

"There were some doubts after last year, about players maybe playing over their heads, the feeling that maybe they'd be complacent," Poile said. "But they have gone in with the idea they are stronger and they can win."

"We have stressed the work ethic, and through a lot of effort, good work habits, a hard-working team, hopefully the end result will be winning," said Murray.

"So far, it has been winning, but that wasn't the total purpose. What we wanted was to come out of camp with a good attitude, good conditioning and to develop a few areas. The winning has come from that."

The Capitals have built their record in a manner Murray believes is becoming the team's trademark.

"Winning by late goals (against Pittsburgh last Sunday after the Penguins had tied it) and in another case, pulling the goaltender at the end of the second period with Hartford ahead, 3-2, and then getting a goal--that's a great feeling," he said. "The general morale is up, and the feeling is that we'll be in a lot of hockey games this season. We're not going to lose, the other team is going to have to beat us."

Going into tonight's game, Washington is carrying 23 players, "and that's basically our team," Poile said. "Two of them are hurt, but that's the team we'll be going with."

The two injured players, Peter Andersson and Bobby Carpenter, both were hurt in Sunday's Pittsburgh game in Baltimore. Andersson, the Swede acquired to help strengthen the defense, is expected to miss eight to 10 weeks with a torn ligament in his left knee. Carpenter, who dislocated his right shoulder, will be examined later in the week to determine if he will return for the regular-season opener Thursday in Philadelphia.

"Peter underwent arthroscopic surgery Wednesday and will have to spend at least four weeks in a cast, and then after that it's a matter of conditioning," Murray said.

"He was certainly going to add to whatever we're building defensively, but there are a couple guys who could step into that spot. With Carpenter, we'd be kidding ourselves to think we can go on without him for much more than a game or two in the regular season. We're fortunate he'll only be out a short time."

Even with those key injuries, Poile retains an optimistic, determined outlook. "What you can say if you lose is that you used different lines, but when you win, you outscored, outchecked the other guys," he said.

"Positive things. Still, I can't get carried away because we're 7-0-2, because when we're in Philadelphia next Thursday, I'll probably say winning breeds confidence, but tonight it means two points."