Al Jensen, a goalie for the Washington Capitals, was misidentified as goalie Pat Riggin in a caption yesterday.

A year ago, the Washington Capitals opened the season in Philadelphia, obscured by baseball's National League championship series between the Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers. Tonight, the Capitals start another campaign in a Philadelphia otherwise occupied, this time by the vice presidential debate between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro.

If the Capitals, whose game will be shown on WDCA-TV-20 starting at 7:30, cannot change the circumstances of their seasonal debut, they are eager to alter the result. In 1983, they were beaten, 4-1, by the Flyers and lost six more games before managing their first victory.

Despite that, the Capitals finished with 101 points, only three behind the Patrick Division-leading New York Islanders. With a reasonable beginning this time, all in the organization are certain Washington can finish first.

One reason for early optimism is the physical condition of the Capitals. Last year, defensemen Peter Andersson and Timo Blomqvist suffered disabling injuries in exhibition games and Bob Carpenter played the first quarter of the season with a damaged shoulder.

This time, the defense is healthy and the only regular absent tonight will be right wing Bryan Erickson, with a broken thumb.

Another plus is that seven Capitals played in the Canada Cup tournament and are virtually in midseason condition. Among them is the team captain, Rod Langway, who started slowly a year ago before displaying the form that earned him top defenseman honors for the second straight year.

"This year the bumps and bruises and pain aren't there from training camp," Langway said. "I've been moving the puck and playing the body and I'm balanced on my skates more sharply.

"Sometimes I feel like I don't really get going until early November. Hopefully, I can move it up a month this year."

Although Langway feels the Capitals are a Stanley Cup contender, he cautions that the playoffs are a long way off.

"We have the caliber of players to win the Stanley Cup, but you need a lot of luck and it's a long year," he said. "Injuries play a big part. We're healthy so far compared to last year and that should help.

"Our defense is sound, there's no doubt about our goaltending and I think the goals will come more than last year. We're more relaxed and confident defensively, and that should help us go on offense more. We can still be the best defensive team and do other things, not be so cautious.

"We have to pick our goals as the season goes on, not think Stanley Cup right now. First we want to win the division. If we can't do that, we'll aim for second place. Regardless, we want to make the playoffs and once we hit the playoffs, we'll take it one series at a time."

With Pittsburgh and New Jersey at such a low competitive level, Washington is virtually guaranteed a playoff berth. However, Coach Bryan Murray disputed a suggestion that the 80-game regular season served no purpose.

"The 80-game schedule is a time to prepare, a time to get recognition, a time to develop," he said. "It's also a time to intimidate the opposition, to let them know you come to play and that maybe you're a little bit better than they are."

At one time, the Flyers did such a good job in that regard that the Capitals dreaded visiting the Spectrum. No more. Washington has won its last seven games against the Flyers, including three straight in Philadelphia by scores of 5-1, 4-1 and 7-1.

The Capitals swept the Flyers in three playoff games and were responsible for Bob McCammon's ouster from behind the bench. Now coaching Philadelphia is Mike Keenan, the man selected over Murray for the job at Peterborough, Ontario, in 1979.

The Flyers reach their opener in a state of flux, having just dealt veteran Darryl Sittler to Detroit yesterday for left wings Murray Craven and Joe Paterson.

The Capitals, meanwhile, reduced their glut of defensemen yesterday by returning top draft choice Kevin Hatcher to his North Bay, Ontario, junior team.

"We had six to eight better defensemen more prepared to enter the season," said General Manager David Poile. "We feel it's in Kevin's best interests to go back to North Bay, get a lot of ice time and become a leader."

In an odd twist, one of the newer Capitals, winger Andre Hidi, played for Keenan both at Peterborough and last year at the University of Toronto. It was Keenan who recommended Hidi to the Capitals when they were searching for a left wing in March.

"He was instrumental in my decision to come here," Hidi said. "He talked to David Poile and Jack Button, then called me before I talked to Washington.

"Playing against somebody you know can work two ways, but I know I want to show him that he didn't make a mistake recommending me to the NHL."

Hidi played in three NHL games last spring, all against the Flyers, and, he said, "This is the fourth time and I haven't lost to them yet. That's one streak I want to continue."

Pat Riggin will be in the Washington net, as he was a year ago. Riggin was 0-8-1 when he was sent to Hershey, returned to become starting goalie again when Al Jensen was injured and finished the season as the leading goalie in the NHL, with a 2.66 goals-against mark.

"I started off 0-3 the first week and it really wasn't justified," Riggin said. "We lost a tough game in Philly, I faced 40 shots in Buffalo and then I lost in New York as the relief, when I gave up only two goals.

"What happens if we'd won in Philly? There are a lot of ifs and buts. I know one thing: after last year I can handle anything. If I didn't commit suicide then, I never will."