The hockey season began with a bang yesterday at Capital Centre. The bitter rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers manifested itself during a highly physical, 4-4 overtime National Hockey League exhibition tie last night, after boiling over in an afternoon rookie scrimmage that alternately became a boxing, wrestling and fencing match.

The principal casualty of the heavy preseason hitting was Washington center Bob Carpenter, who suffered bruised ribs in the first period last night and left for precautionary X-rays that proved negative.

The Capitals displayed two of last year's weaknesses as they proved unable to exploit a 38-23 advantage in shots. They could not handle the Flyers' Tim Kerr, who scored three times, and they proved inept on the power play.

Washington was unable to convert any of the 10 extra-man chances provided by Philadelphia. At one stage, the Capitals had a seven-minute manpower advantage. At another, they were two men up for 46 seconds.

Kerr, who had 12 goals in seven games against Washington last season, scored twice in the third period to wipe out a 4-2 deficit. Bob Gould, Kevin Hatcher, Grant Martin and Lou Franceschetti scored for the Capitals.

Five fights resulted in major penalties, with Washington's Andre Hidi battling both Dave Brown and Rick Tocchet. Washington's Scott Stevens was assessed an additional misconduct when he shoved linesman Pat DaPuzzo following a bout with Tocchet.

As physical as the main event was, it was mere boyish roughhouse compared with the afternoon rookie scrimmage. The worst of a dozen fights during that contest involved every player on the ice as well as the two assistant coaches, Washington's Ron Lapointe and Philadelphia's Bill Barber.

The free-for-all forced referee Jim Lehan to order the second period ended early. The third period was relatively calm until the final minute, when the Flyers' Steve Martinson challenged the Washington bench and precipitated another all-hands battle.

The Capitals won on the scoreboard, 8-3, as Yvon Corriveau, Washington's top draft choice, scored two goals. The imbalance in talent was one reason Lapointe cited for the frequent fights. There were eight one-on-one matchups and a 12-man encounter before the big brawl.

"The skill level of our players was much higher, and the Flyers became frustrated," said Lapointe, a new assistant to Coach Bryan Murray. "The first couple of fights they jumped on our backs and we finally decided we weren't going to get suckered. We were going to get them first."

So, as the players lined up for a faceoff following a lengthy fight that involved all the players on the ice (including the goalies), the three Washington forwards suddenly began punching their opposite numbers. The Flyers immediately swarmed off their bench; even two who had been banished to the dressing room returned to help escalate the brawl, during which Lapointe and Barber scuffled off the ice.

With no security personnel in evidence, the fighting continued until the players couldn't swing any longer. They finally were herded to the dressing rooms and Lehan said there was some thought of not playing the third period.

"This is a rookie scrimmage and they're trying to make the team. It happens," said Lehan, a college hockey referee who chose an unenviable way to spend his 17th wedding anniversary. "They're kids. The only real disaster was at the end of the second period. The third period wasn't bad until that one incident."

Martinson jabbed his stick at several players on the Washington bench and when he was surrounded by Capitals, the Flyers invaded the bench area to help him. At one stage, Lapointe was standing on the bench separating players from the two teams, who were standing there as well.

The rookie teams are scheduled to play another game Monday in Voorhees, N.J. Asked if it would be played, Washington General Manager David Poile said, "It's on the schedule."

"This is an intense rivalry that obviously has been created the last couple of years and it appears the younger players on both teams are aware of that," Poile said. "They know the Patrick Division is a tough division and they feel this is the way they have to play to be successful in either organization."

Barber blamed Lapointe for inciting the most flagrant of the fights, but he, too, cited the rivalry as the root cause. "There was an incident on the ice and then three of their guys dropped their gloves on us," Barber said. "It was youth hockey. They're inexperienced and there wasn't really much we could do about it.

"They realize they've got to be impressive coming into two good organizations running for first place. Spirits are high."

Many of the players participating in the night game arrived in time to see some of the shenanigans. Most laughed; a few expressed disgust.

"Nobody condones that," Lapointe said, "but this is preseason and the kids out there know if they back down we won't touch them. It sparks things."