Wherever one goes around Washington these days, people are talking Capitals. On a night they play, it's hard to squeeze into most sports bars.

"Unbelievable," said Bobby Abbo, happy proprietor of Poor Robert's on Connecticut Avenue. Or Scott Anderson, manager of former Capital Bryan Watson's pizza place and Penalty Box bar in Alexandria: "By game time of most games, we have to put somebody at the door" -- it's not even standing room only inside. Even uptown partygivers and partygoers are talking about the Capitals. "You'd have to be under a barrel not to have heard of the Capitals," said television producer Nancy Dickerson.

From his hardware stores in Olney and Norbeck in Maryland, Larry White can see a future that includes a Stanley Cup championship banner hanging from Capital Centre's ceiling. Just a few years ago, White could see the Capitals never playing another game here. Abe Pollin was thinking about selling the team, perhaps to a local buyer, but White and his friends didn't know anything for sure about the Capitals' future when they came out of the woodwork (you had to look hard for Capitals fans, then) and formed the Save the Caps Committee.

"About a hundred people got together over at Maruk's place" -- that's former Capital Dennis Maruk, who had a restaurant in Virginia -- "and out of that came the Save the Caps campaign," said White. "It was seven days a week for a lot of people for a couple of months.

"I remembered 1971 when the Senators left, but I was too young then to do anything about it. I didn't want to see the Caps leave."

It was the summer of '82. In the evenings after work, White and his friends manned phones at Capital Centre, taking season-ticket pledges. They beat the pavement, seeking publicity, and flooded the area with "Save the Caps" flyers run off on White's photocopying machine. They did a mailing to businesses, paid for out of their pockets, and put on a radiothon at the Touchdown Club to "keep the Caps."

And they worried. These were serious Capitals fans. "The day of the radiothon," White said, "people were pessimistic . . .

"People would say we were doing a great job, but they'd always end up saying, 'But you're wasting your time.' "

Sybil Hindin, another "Save the Caps'" founder, put a small, one-column ad in The Washington Post's sports section. "Save the Caps," it read. "Time is running out. Show your support. Call Steve/Sybil."

Steve is Steve Gearhart, who, among other things, distributed "Save the Caps" flyers on the Mall at a July 4 fireworks display. One day, he said, he received a call from Pollin, who told him the "Save the Caps" effort had made him "step back and take a different look at things." Said Gearhart, "That gave us the will to go on."

The crisis was easing, and the rest is history. Almost. The Capitals haven't won the Stanley Cup yet. But the way they are trying is plenty of fun for their growing legion.

"I had four season tickets -- this was back in the beginning," said Bobby Abbo. "I couldn't give them away to my customers."

Last Saturday night, Abbo could barely squeeze one more customer into his place to see the Capitals-Rangers on Home Team Sports. And who are all these people?

"It seems like a whole different bunch," said Abbo. "My degenerate friends, the race trackers, the footballers, I don't see them. There's some overlap -- some are Redskin fans. But basically it's a new crowd. They're knowledgeable. If there's a trade, that's all they talk about. They know the referees' names. How sick is that?"

Lately, a hockey underground has been coming out of hiding. At the Penalty Box, they come in waves on game nights. For home games, the bar has been running a bus to the playoffs, so the place fills up with bus riders before the 6:30 departure. Wisely, the TV watchers begin showing up just after the first crowd leaves for Capital Centre.

For a Flyers-Rangers first-round playoff game, "we had the same crowd as for the Capitals," said Anderson. "I guess they were interested in which one was going to play the Capitals."

The Capitals' surge toward the top of the National Hockey League makes no one happier than former but still faithful Capitals. Take Yvon Labre, 1974-81, now the Capitals' director of community relations. When Labre played, few noticed.

"Now I wake up in the morning and turn on the radio and Greg Adams is on," said Labre. "It's kind of nice, this media attention."

An energetic sort who still would love to be out on the ice playing -- in fact, many of these days he works out with spares the team has brought up from Binghamton in case of injuries to regulars -- Labre walks the packed concourse during intermissions of home games.

" 'Hey, Yvon, isn't this great? Isn't this great?' they'll say, and I'll say, 'Yeah, they're a good team, but they've got to keep working hard. You've always got to keep working hard.' "

Fan fervor being what it has been, Labre has even had the pleasure this season of conducting the Washington Capitals' Adult Hockey School. Every Thursday evening in February, a class of about 50 students -- businessmen and others in their 30s and 40s ("We even had a grandfather," said Labre) -- gathered for chalk talks and instruction on the ice. "Mostly skating drills," said Labre. "But then we had passing drills, too. We put a little puck in there, because that's what they wanted, to pass. On the last night, we had a game."

Among Labre's helpers was former Capitals goalie Bernie Wolfe (1975-79). Wolfe, who owns a financial planning firm in Rockville, watches the games just as intently as Labre, but, as a former goaltender might, more calmly. "I watch the goaltenders, how they cut down the angle, things like that," he said.

Pete Peeters has a different style than he had. "Peeters is tall. He looks over people. I'm 5-9. I played closer to the ice. More like a Gump Worsley."

But no matter the season, no matter the place in the standings, a goalie always faces pressure. Wolfe's mind was occupied by thoughts of . . . "survival!"

"In my day, you knew you would get close to 40 shots," Wolfe said. "You were afraid of embarrassing yourself."

Playing behind the current Capitals' defense might have prolonged Wolfe's career, but he's happy nonetheless. "I'm a fan," he said.

With so many fans emerging, Lew Strudler, the Capitals' marketing director, no longer experiences pressures known only to goalies and those trying to sell tickets for a bad team. These days, selling tickets is about as easy as selling heaters in Edmonton.

"We had 3,400 seats on sale for Friday night's game," he said, "and we sold out in 36 hours."

Playoff seats, he said, are going first to season-ticket holders, then for additional orders they might want to place; then to partial-plan holders; then to the rest of the public. This season, Strudler said, the Capitals sold 6,850 full-season tickets and 5,757 partial plans. Already for next season, the Capitals have sold 7,871 season tickets and 8,200 partial plans.

"We've never felt the demand be as strong as it is right now," Strudler said. "In this town, winning definitely is a key."

"Now," said Larry White, "all my customers want to talk hockey, more so than ever. They ask me questions. I got a little depressed when Bengt Gustafsson got hurt -- he had such a good year. But now we have six good defensemen . . . "

And Sybil Hindin: "Now when we go out to the Capital Centre and see all these people cheering, we look around and we can't believe it. There's a lot to like, with all those good trades that were made.

"They want to win. They taste it. Before, we wanted them to win. We wanted them to be checking hard. Now they're doing it. We helped them stay, but they're doing the work."

"It's a good feeling," said Gearhart, "to see everybody enjoying hockey and knowing we had something to do with it."

Nancy Dickerson said she was out to see a Devils-Capitals game this season because "the people I was with were Devils fans," but "I loved it." (Larry White said it took him three or four games to get hooked.)

True, the Capitals are not yet dominating conversations these evenings in Georgetown and Kalorama salons. Said Dickerson, "It's not Caps and canapes."

But then, the Capitals haven't reached the Stanley Cup finals yet.