There are many reasons why the first-place Washington Capitals are the hottest team not only in the Patrick Division, but in the entire National Hockey League. One of the most important is the return to top form of left wing Gaetan Duchesne.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of a player who has scored only 49 goals in 3 1/3 NHL seasons. But Duchesne's teammates appreciate his worth, none more than penalty-killing partner Doug Jarvis, the best defensive player in the NHL last season.

"Gaet's a good, solid hockey player, a good positional player," Jarvis said. "He's the type of guy who can make up the backbone of the team, because the style we play is his type of game.

"He always has his man covered, he's good in our end and when he gets a chance, he can score."

Duchesne, a native of Quebec City, scored on the first shot of the game at Le Colisee Tuesday night and the Capitals went on to beat the Nordiques, 4-1. That gave Washington an 11-1-1 record over the last 3 1/2 weeks and a total of 40 points, one more than Patrick runner-up Philadelphia.

Only Edmonton with 45 has more points. One other team has 40 -- Montreal, which Washington plays here Thursday night (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30) in another homecoming for former Canadiens Jarvis, Rod Langway and Craig Laughlin.

Duchesne will have his following in the Forum, too, although no Washington goals in this one are likely to receive the cheers that followed his early performance in Quebec.

"Maybe 50 were there cheering for me," Duchesne said. "It boosts me and makes me feel good that I get that support. My family was at the airport when we came in Monday -- my wife, too, because she is here while we are on the road so much.

"I was very nervous before the game, because I want to do well, but I don't think you can call it pressure on me. During the warmup I just tell myself to play the same game I always play and when I get the goal, it is just great."

Duchesne once bought an entire section in Le Colisee for his friends and relatives -- he has 10 brothers and sisters. Another time he paid for a chartered bus to carry fans from Quebec to Montreal.

If Duchesne is popular in Quebec, he is no less honored in Washington, where he was the first Capital to have a personal fan club.

Although he is the only French Canadian player on the Washington roster, Duchesne fits in well with his teammates from English-speaking Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland. He says he has no regrets that he is not playing for Quebec or Montreal.

"I never think about that," he said. "When I am in junior, I just ask for some team to draft me. I want to go anywhere. Washington took me and I could not be happier."

Duchesne was the 152nd player drafted in 1981. Although the Capitals accorded him the formality of a training-camp tryout, there was little doubt that he would be returned to the Quebec Remparts junior team, where he had scored a mere -- for the Quebec League -- 27 goals the year before.

Duchesne was sent back to the Remparts for the first weekend of the early-bird Quebec season, but he had made enough of an impression for the Capitals to ask that he return to camp for a longer look.

He played poorly in those few games with the Remparts, came back and explained, "My body was in Quebec, but my head was in Washington."

Except for one game in Hershey, Duchesne's body has been in Washington ever since. He enjoyed a spectacular exhibition campaign this fall and seemed to be developing offensive skills to go with his defensive prowess. However, he suffered a broken hand in the opening game at Philadelphia and sat out the next five weeks.

It is not mere coincidence that without Duchesne the Capitals were a mediocre 5-5-3 club. For example, in his absence the penalty killers yielded 19 goals in 57 chances, for a dreadful 66.7 percent success rate. With him, the figures are 12 goals in 59 opportunities, or 79.7.

"It took a while after the injury for me to be sharp again, but I came back in good shape and that helped," Duchesne said. "I was very afraid to lose my condition being out five weeks, so I try to do as much skating as I can to keep the legs good."

Duchesne is a superb skater, which he attributes to a power-skating course he took when he obtained a referee's card as a teen-ager. His brother, Yves, is a linesman in the Quebec League.

"Gaetan Duchesne is a key player for us," said Coach Bryan Murray. "When he was hurt, it took away from that line a great deal. The way he's played lately has been a big factor in what we've done. He's an excellent forechecker, he's quick to get the puck out of our end and he's so intense out there that he gets other guys going, too."

"Gaet and Gary Sampson are our only natural left wingers," said captain Rod Langway. "We need him in the lineup. What does he mean to us? He means a lot, let me tell you."