When the Los Angeles Kings played before 8,160 at Capital Centre Tuesday night, it gave them the dubious distinction of attracting the National Hockey League's four smallest crowds in their first four games.

The other three were at home -- 11,261 for Edmonton, 9,155 for Vancouver and 7,110 for St. Louis. The Edmonton crowd was the Kings' largest for a home opener in six years. Last season, in missing the playoffs for the second straight year, the Kings drew only 419,725, lowest since 1979-80. That ranked 20th in the NHL, with only Pittsburgh attracting fewer.

The Kings' travel expenses are the highest in the NHL with Vancouver, two hours away, the shortest flight. With an 0-3-1 start and a long rebuilding job a necessity, some wonder how long owner Jerry Buss will continue to accept the financial losses and the embarrassment.

In the fall of 1980, Buss said he was allowing four years to turn things around. His timetable on that occasion called for the Kings, in 1983-84, to exceed the gross receipts of the Montreal Canadiens.

Now, it is obvious there is no hope of reaching those goals in four more years.

Larry Murphy, who missed the team's flight to Washington after Sunday's 5-3 win over Chicago, then missed Monday's practice, played well Tuesday against his former teammates, the Los Angeles Kings. According to a spokesman for the Capitals, Murphy paid for his return flight, paid his fine for missing the bus and for missing practice, and the "whole thing is is a dead issue."

Bryan Erickson, who broke his thumb in an exhibition game against the Hartford Whalers Oct. 2, will return to the lineup against the Rangers, five days earlier than expected. To make room for Erickson, the Capitals sent Dean Evason to Binghamton. Evason was called up after Gaetan Duchesne went out with an broken hand.

A year ago, the Capitals were the youngest team in the NHL. Now, with virtually the same cast grown a year older, the Capitals still qualify as the NHL's youngest club. Washington's average age is 24.5 years, with Doug Jarvis the senior member at 29. The oldest team in the league is New Jersey, with an average of 27.4.

Four members of the Capitals' current six-man defensive unit are first-round draft choices. Surprisingly, that does not include Rod Langway, chosen in the second round by Montreal in 1977. The first-rounders are Dave Shand, Larry Murphy, Darren Veitch and Scott Stevens.

Referee Andy Van Hellemond wore a helmet during the Capitals-Kings game Tuesday and, as in the case of the players, the only wonder is why it took so long.

"It won't be long before all the players have helmets," Van Hellemond said. "Then we'd be the only ones on the ice without them. Why wait until somebody gets hurt to do it?

"The puck is coming off the glass at weird angles and players are shooting harder, faster and higher. There is a greater risk of injury now than before.

"I guess we never thought helmets suited us, either on the ice or to carry in our travels. But the helmet I wear is so light and comfortable that, once the game starts, I don't even know it's there."

Right wing Steve Leach, the Capitals' No. 2 draft choice last summer, has been chosen to play on the U.S. team that will compete in the World Junior Championships in Sweden in December.

Leach, a graduate of Matignon (Mass.) High School, is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire.