The last time the Washington Capitals arrived in Quebec City, three weeks ago, they were slogging along at a sub-.500 pace. Tonight, if they beat the Nordiques in Le Colisee, they will own first place in the Patrick Division.

Over the last 12 games, the Capitals have a 10-1-1 record while outscoring the opposition, 59-26. They are unbeaten in their last seven road games.

The most startling number associated with the Capitals, however, is 25. That is the total goals amassed by center Bob Carpenter in just 31 games.

Before the season began, Coach Bryan Murray was asked what the Capitals needed to become a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. His reply: "A 50-goal scorer." Expounding on the subject, Murray said, "It would be hard for anybody to reach 50 with our emphasis on defense, but Bobby Carpenter could be in the 40-goal range. He has great potential and if he stays healthy, he could make a big leap forward."

Should Carpenter maintain his scoring rate and play every game, as he has since joining the Capitals right from high school in 1981, he would finish with 65 goals. That is almost unthinkable and nobody wants to burden Carpenter with pressure he doesn't need. On the other hand, the way he is playing, why not?

Asked about the Capitals' surge, captain Rod Langway said, "The big thing is Bobby. Bobby's playing so well, it's night and day. He's still got to work on defense, because we're defensive minded, but he can bomb from anywhere. With two guys like Bobby and Mike (Gartner) on the same line, it really gives the other team a lot to think about."

Carpenter's blooming, after seasons of 32, 32 and 28 goals, doesn't surprise Gartner. "Bobby is maturing," Gartner said. "People tend to forget he's just a kid. He won't reach his prime for a couple of years yet."

Murray agrees that Carpenter, 21, has matured on the ice as well as off it. "Bobby Carpenter has really come on this season," Murray said. "He's much more poised and he's so confident out there. He's a highly skilled individual and he does great things with the puck.

"He's trying different things out there and now they're working. He's becoming the player who was envisioned when he was drafted in the first round three years ago."

Carpenter has the potential to break the NHL goal-scoring record for a U.S.-born player, established last season when Joe Mullen got 41 for St. Louis. That seems a reasonable goal, since Wayne Gretzky put the NHL mark beyond mere mortals with 92 three years ago, but Carpenter laughs about it. "That doesn't mean anything; it's like the North American Trophy," he said.

The North American Trophy is awarded to the United States or Canada, depending on which performs best in the Canada Cup. When the United States, with four Capitals including Carpenter, placed second behind the Soviet Union in the round-robin portion of the Cup in September, it was supposed to receive the trophy. But fourth-place Canada, with Gartner, won the Cup in an upset and the original ruling was rescinded.

Carpenter laughingly contends he still is waiting for his miniature of the trophy. Then he seriously acknowledges that the Canada Cup played a major role in his giant step forward.

"The Canada Cup helped me a lot, giving me confidence," Carpenter said. "Everyone was loose and I was playing with the best people. I've tried to carry it right over into the season.

"I'm skating better, I'm feeling better and I have a lot more confidence. Mike and I have played together for four years now and we know what we're going to do. It makes things really easy out there."

Despite his good start, Carpenter might not get to play in the NHL All-Star Game at Calgary Feb. 12. The problem stems from the fact that he has alternated between center and left wing this season. He has started 18 games as a center, 13 on the wing, and often has flopped from one to the other during the course of a game.

Should his vote be split between positions, he might not finish among the top two at either. Additional picks fall to Coach Al Arbour, who has shown a penchant in the past for rewarding his own Islanders once each Prince of Wales Conference team is assured a representative.

Carpenter seems about as upset by that prospect as he is excited by the chance to eclipse Mullen's "record."

"The All-Star thing is a little far-fetched, it's too soon," Carpenter said. "I'd be honored, but I think it's a little early. I've never really thought about it. I'm just trying to become a better player than I showed the last three years.

"I don't know where they could put me, anyway. They've got (Quebec's Michel) Goulet at left wing and they've got plenty of centers. Maybe I could be a middleman -- play wherever somebody needs a rest."

Carpenter was a high school center and played there in his first month as a Capital, when Murray shifted him to the wing to "protect" the youngster as he adapted to NHL pressure. Carpenter resisted the move, but since he played all three forward positions in the Canada Cup, he has come to appreciate the virtues of versatility.

"Playing both keeps your mind into the game and makes you feel important," Carpenter said. "You know the coach trusts you when he moves you around like that.

"It gets you into things and you have to think more. On the wing, you have to go up and down and it can get to you mentally. But if you're switching, you have to think, 'Do I go up and down or do I go all over?' If you're thinking all the time out there, you're going to be a better player."

Right wing Bob Gould was slashed in the foot Sunday and the way he was limping yesterday, he is unlikely to play in Quebec . . . Center Glen Currie, who was in Washington yesterday for medical tests because of recent weariness, most likely will dress in Gould's place . . . Right wing Alan Haworth, knocked out of Sunday's game by an elbow in the first period, said he felt much better and would play tonight.