When Pat Riggin guards the Washington Capitals' goal in Detroit tonight, he will be marking an anniversary of sorts. Exactly a year ago, Riggin reluctantly drove his car up Interstate 83 to Hershey for the only minor league experience of his career.

At the time, Riggin owned an 0-8-1 record with a goals-against figure of 4.70. If ever a season appeared beyond salvage for a player, that was it.

From there on, of course, the story could have been adapted from Horatio Alger. After three good efforts in Hershey, Riggin returned to Washington, just as Al Jensen injured his back lifting weights.

Riggin started 17 straight games, went 13 without a loss, achieved three consecutive shutouts on the road and by season's end owned a 2.66 goals-against mark, best in the NHL. He was named to the second all-star team and shared the Jennings trophy with Jensen.

There has been no letdown this season. Playing most of the games, with Jensen again ailing, Riggin has posted figures of 14-9-5 and 2.94, third best in the league.

Despite the heavy workload, Riggin contends he has never felt better. While conceding that every team needs two goaltenders, he has indicated that he expects to play most games.

Before, with rookie Bob Mason as his backup, there was no doubt of that plan. Coach Bryan Murray picked his spots for Mason, who won six in a row but never was considered anything but No. 2. Now Jensen is back, his first start set for Wednesday in St. Louis, and Riggin once again might find himself battling to keep the No. 1 job.

It is a most interesting situation, because the feeling persists that, while ranking No. 1 statistically, Riggin might not be the favorite of Murray and General Manager David Poile. During his hot streak last winter, Riggin went from city to city telling all who would listen that Murray and Poile had lost confidence in him. Considering that Riggin, once asked during his darker days if he was starting, had replied that "I couldn't stop a basketball," such accusations seemed unfair, as well as unsettling, to the coach and general manager.

Murray and Poile have declined to comment.

Before he went to Hershey, played well and regained his confidence in himself, Riggin twice refused requests to be farmed out. He could not be sent down against his wishes without passing waivers.

During the summer, trade rumors involving Riggin were prevalent, with the usual scenario having Poile send the goalie to Los Angeles for forward Charlie Simmer. That deal never was discussed for the simple reason that the Kings had no interest in Riggin.

Nevertheless, Poile was contacted by Alan Eagleson, Riggin's agent, and obligingly issued a statement to the effect that he had no thoughts of trading Riggin.

Murray has praised the goalie's work on numerous occasions and, while Detroit would seem a good motivational site for Jensen's return, since he was traded away by the Red Wings, Murray is starting Riggin tonight. Riggin's family and friends are coming from London, Ontario, to see the game.

A big plus for Riggin in any quarrel with management has always been the favoritism he enjoys with fans -- he was voted the Capitals' most popular player a year ago -- and teammates.

A crack appeared in that facade last week, however, when Riggin engaged in a fierce fight with winger Mike Gartner in a practice session. It began with Riggin slashing Gartner in the leg, and Gartner replied by swinging his stick near Riggin's head.

The roots apparently go back much farther. Unlike Jensen, who treats each practice shot as a game situation, Riggin prefers an easier workout. But it is difficult to relax when players are firing high, hard shots and Gartner has a penchant for those.

Since he possesses one of the hardest shots in the league, Gartner more than once has forced a dozing Riggin to take a backward dive to avoid a menacing puck. Riggin has made no secret of his feelings about it.

There seems little doubt that if Jensen regains his form of last season and Mason proves he can play well in big games, the Capitals will be forced to trade a goaltender. Although such a move is at least six months away, the obvious choice would be Riggin, for all the reasons cited and one even more important: he has the greatest trade value.

The biggest question that remains, and one that cannot be answered until someone moves on, is whether all three goalies are as good as their statistics. There is reason to believe that the Capitals' goals-against figure, lowest in the NHL a year ago and currently third behind Philadelphia and Buffalo, is influenced more by Murray's coaching and the presence of such defensive standouts as Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis and Gaetan Duchesne than it is by the goaltending.

By contrast, it is questionable whether goalies Greg Stefan and Corrado Micalef are responsible for the weak-checking Red Wings' status as the second-poorest defensive team, after Vancouver.

Although Detroit has a 13-22-5 record, it is virtually assured of a playoff berth because of Toronto's presence in the Norris Division and it also is likely to lead the NHL in attendance.

The Wings, averaging 17,428, have had the league's five biggest crowds of the season, with a peak of 20,328. Attendance for the last seven home games has surpassed 18,000.

Washington prevailed, 4-0, in the teams' only previous meeting, as Mason, since sent to Binghamton, gained his first NHL shutout.

The Capitals, sharing the Patrick Division lead with the Flyers, are in good shape physically. Leading scorer Bob Carpenter practiced the last two days and reported no carryover effect of the whiplash that forced him out of Friday's game against Quebec.