The object of the 21 National Hockey League teams in the 7 1/2 months ahead is to win the Stanley Cup. For the first time in their 11-year history, the Washington Capitals enter a season as realistic challengers.

A year ago, as the NHL's youngest team, the Capitals began a season in which they would rank fifth overall with 101 points and post the league's best defensive record. Had they won just two of their first seven games, instead of losing all seven, they would have finished second only to the Edmonton Oilers.

A year of experience and maturity for the returning players is the principal reason for greater expectations this time around, starting with the opener Thursday night in Philadelphia. With the exception of defenseman Rod Langway, already the best at his trade, it is not unrealistic to expect improvement from everyone in the lineup.

"Unless something drastic happens, we've got to be considered a contender for the Cup," said Bryan Murray, carrying coach of the year recognition into his third full season behind the bench. "It takes luck and it takes great play in every position, but we've got to be considered one of the good teams in the league along with the Oilers, Islanders and Buffalo. With a break or two, if we stay healthy, we're capable of winning it all."

Two years ago, Murray's goal was to reach the playoffs; last season he wanted to advance past the first round. In each case, his aim was fulfilled.

The Capitals came close to overachieving in April. After sweeping Philadelphia in three games, they won their opener on Long Island and took the Islanders to overtime of Game 2 before unraveling.

The experience gained in those series should be beneficial. Additionally, the confidence generated by last season's success figures to prompt many players to try more things, particularly on offense.

In attaining an 8-2 exhibition record, best in the NHL, the Capitals averaged 4.5 goals a game. Last season, they managed 3.85 per contest.

"Offensively, we seem to be a bit more confident," Murray said. "More people seem sure of what they're doing. Being together will do that. Not only are a number of forwards showing better offensive skills, but we should get considerably more involvement offensively from our blueline. We ought to be much more explosive on offense and much more entertaining overall."

Langway, winner of the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman the last two seasons, is the team leader, the man who picks up anyone who might make a mistake.

"There's no question, we have to ask Rod to play at the level of the last two years," Murray said. "He must once again be a contender for the Norris Trophy if we're to be a contender for the Stanley Cup."

The other left-side stalwart, Scott Stevens, is displaying much more confidence entering his third season. Accordingly, he has been paired with Larry Murphy, who benefited from Langway's company a year ago. Langway's new partner is Peter Andersson, a standout in the Canada Cup. Those two figure to be back during crucial circumstances, such as opposing power plays and the closing minute of each period.

Timo Blomqvist seems certain to play an important defensive role, but it remains to be seen whether the sixth man will be Dave Shand, Darren Veitch, Kevin Hatcher or even Mike McEwen, who can expect a quick recall from Binghamton if the power play sputters.

Andre Hidi, one of two newcomers, has been thrown into a key spot at left wing alongside Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner, two swift skaters from whom more goal production is expected.

"Mike Gartner is better with the puck and he's just flying," Murray said. "He will be a 50-goal scorer, and I say that without reservation. I'm sure we'll create more for him this year. Bob Carpenter started last season with an injury and did not progress as much as we'd hoped, but he has shown improvement in several areas this year and I think the Canada Cup exposure helped him."

Two other Canada Cuppers, Bengt Gustafsson and Dave Christian, will play on a line with Alan Haworth, the outstanding Capital during the exhibition campaign.

"I have great ambitions for Dave Christian and Alan Haworth," Murray said. "People like that should get 35 to 40 goals. Gus should have at least 30." All three achieved NHL highs a year ago -- Christian 29, Haworth 24, Gustafsson 32.

Jim McGeough, a 40-goal man at Hershey, moves in with Doug Jarvis, the league's top defensive forward, and Craig Laughlin, a 20-goal man who has shown considerably more drive near the net.

The Gee Whiz Line of Gaetan Duchesne, Glen Currie and Bob Gould returns intact. One of the NHL's best defensive units, the Gee Whizzers showed more willingness to handle the puck and break for the net in the last few exhibitions, with devastating results.

Murray is counting on Andersson and Stevens to help the power play, which floundered at times a year ago. If they, Murphy and Veitch cannot do the required job on the points, McEwen is available in relief.

Winger Bryan Erickson, the lone exhibition loss with a broken thumb, will be ready in a couple of weeks, so there is incentive for all the regulars to play their best.

Minor leaguers such as Dean Evason, Gary Sampson, Graeme Nicolson and Marc Chorney give the Capitals more depth than they have enjoyed in the past. When injuries occur, the team will be better able to cope with them.

The goaltending is in the hands of Pat Riggin and Al Jensen, who ranked first and third last year while sharing the Jennings Trophy for yielding the fewest goals in the league as a team.

Murray's added experience should be helpful, too, since he came to Washington with no NHL background. He now knows the league, as well as the capabilities of his own players.

It remains for the Capitals to accomplish something that has eluded them every previous season -- a fast start. The availability of six Canada Cuppers in virtual midseason condition should prove useful in realizing that goal.