Having recently sent the puck skidding toward Detroit's unguarded net, Doug Jarvis was still in his follow-through, when 220 pounds worth of airborne Randy Ladouceur plowed, elbow-first, into his face. The force of the collision lifted Jarvis off his feet, opened him up like a jacknife, catapulting him backwards. And even as the red light flashing signified that his aim was true, the back of Jarvis's head landed flush on the ice, leaving him unconscious for almost three minutes and in need of a stretcher and 12 stitches to seal the gash. Had Jarvis been made out of wood, they would have been picking up splinters all the way to Topeka.

Starting with the very first time he skated in the NHL, in 1975, continuing through last Tuesday in Detroit, Jarvis had played in 761 consecutive games. In the history of the league, only two men had knitted longer streaks: Garry Unger, with 914, and Craig Ramsay, with 776. Unger's streak ended moronically in 1979; Al MacNeil, who coached the Flames, benched Unger in what has been described as "an attempt to fire up the team." Ramsay's ended in 1983 when he broke his foot blocking a shot. When Jarvis went down -- especially after he was carted off -- their numbers seemed safe. The Capitals had to play the following night in St. Louis; the way Jarvis went down, you couldn't be sure he'd even awaken by then.

After spending the night in a Detroit hospital, after undergoing X-rays and a CAT scan, Jarvis was released on Wednesday morning. He joined the Capitals at the airport for the flight to St. Louis, and, after consulting with his doctors and coaches, did, indeed, play in the game, notching No. 762.

The streak lives.

"My inclination was to send him directly back to Washington," said Dr. John Finley, the Red Wings' team physician who supervised Jarvis's treatment. "But I thought he looked okay, and the neurological people said there wasn't any undue risk involved. And he was very, very anxious to play."

It seems reasonable to assume that Jarvis was very anxious to play in order to add to his streak. I certainly assumed so. So did David Poile, the Capitals' general manager, who, after conceding that "from a practical sense (the injury) probably warranted he sit out a couple of days," said Jarvis was "heroic . . . the ultimate definition of a 'team' player." So did Dick Young, the Capitals' head trainer. So did Bryan Murray, the Capitals' coach, who told Mike Gartner to go tell Jarvis that it was fine if he wanted to make a token appearance on the ice just to keep the streak going. So did Finley, who said that Jarvis reminded him of the streak when he got to the hospital.

But perhaps the assumption is incorrect.

Certainly Jarvis thinks so.

"I wanted to play," Jarvis said. "But not because of the streak. Any streak is secondary to the team winning, and I wanted to play because I thought I felt well enough to help the team win. I know I took a pretty hard shot, but to tell you the truth, I don't remember it. I remember waking up in the trainer's room, looking up at the faces, and wondering what I was doing there. But once the fog lifted, I felt fine. I felt good in the hospital, and better the next day. They were right in taking that precaution, and if they had said to me, 'Don't play,' I wouldn't have. I played because I thought I could help us win.

"I wouldn't have gone out there just to keep the streak going, just to suit up and step on the ice for 10 seconds and get off. I've got more respect for my teammates and my coaches than I do for the streak. Just out of respect for your teammates and coaches, you should either be able to contribute, or sit down. If I couldn't have played close to my level, I'd have sat. I mean that. The streak is nice, but I'd never lean on it like that."

Again, it seems reasonable to wonder whether such talk is selfless, or just self-serving. I admit I did. If I had the streak going, I would do what I could to maintain it. And, after 761 straight, I'd think I was owed an early slide here and there.

Murray was prepared to give Jarvis that opportunity, and sent Gartner in to tell him. "Doug came to me with tears in his eyes," Murray said. "He was really upset that I might think he just wanted to play because of the streak. Now that I've seen how he reacted, I wouldn't ever suggest it again."

Since only Unger and Ramsay have longer numbers, it might be instructive to hear from them on the subject. Unger: "I never played a game to keep the streak alive. I played for the team, not for the streak. As far as the stitches go, to a hockey player stitches are really nothing; I would rather take 11 stitches in the head than a bad knee anytime. I know why Doug played. He's a hockey player; that's how we're brought up." Ramsay: "I want to play every game. I really like playing, and it's what I get paid to do. The way I look at it, if you missed a game because you didn't feel 100 percent, then it became easier to miss another one; if you can play, you should play. But I didn't think about having a streak until it got to be around 500 and people started bringing it up. Actually it's a bit of a relief when it's finally over. You're not worried before every game that this could be the last one."

Jarvis will record No. 763 today in New Jersey. He can tie Ramsay on Feb. 9, in Philadelphia. It will take him until December of 1986 to reach Unger.

"I hope he makes it," Unger said.

These streaks are not just a tribute to a player's talent, that he can stay in the league so long, but to his good health -- and his good luck in maintaining his good health. Jarvis feels so fortunate at having avoided major injury that he's reluctant to even talk about it, for fear he'll jinx himself. About the streak, he says he takes "them one at a time." One game. One year. One decade. And the beat goes on.