The Washington Capitals, outshot 10-1 in the third period, watched a 3-1 victory become a 3-3 tie last night at Capital Centre. Rick Kehoe and Syl Apps slapped in loose pucks from close range to salvage the standoff for a Pittsburgh team that was completely outclassed for 40 minutes.

Bob Sirois, chewed out at the morning practice session by coach Tom McVie, responded with two Washington goals in only his second appearance since suffering a broken thumb Dec. 7.

Gerry Meehan, whose eight-shot total in the first two periods matched the Penguins' output, netted his third goal since Nov. 24. All have come against Pittsburgh.

Both Capital heroes agreed on one thing. A 3-1 lead after two periods in NHL action is an unhealthy situation.

"Somebody once said a 3-1 lead is the worst you can have," Meehan said. "When you're up 2-1 you work hard to keep it. When it's 4-1 it's pretty well over. But when it's 3-1 you tend to sit on it and that's what we did."

The "somebody" who said that might have been Sirois, who echoed afterward, "When it's 3-1 after two periods I always get scared. If it's 2-1 you still play hard and with 4-1 you're O.K., but with a 3-1 lead you get relaxed. The guys didn't want to go offensively and take a chance of getting caught on a three-on-two."

Instead, the Capitals were caught by pucks lying in the slot. After goalie Ron Low blocked a drive by Pierce Larouche, the puck slid around among the skates of several players before Kehoe gained possession and knocked it in.

"I was going to dive for it, but I couldn't get to it," Low said. The principal reason he couldn't get there was that teammate Gordie Iane kicked it beyond Low's reach in his effort to clear.

That made it 3-2 at 7:52 and the Penguins quickly resumed their swarming tactics. Washington's lone shot of the period was yet unborn when Apps tied the game on Pittsburgh's seventh at 11:10.

Jean Pronovost, a battler all night, corralled the puck along the boards behind the Washington net and passed out to Ron Stackhouse at the right down by Washington defenseman Bryan Watson, but the puck struck his skate and skipped to Apps.

"It went off his (Watson's toe to Apps' chest, that's how lucky the guy was," Low said.

Lane fired a long shot at the Pittsburgh net with seven minutes left for the only Washington shot of the period. There was a better threat, however, when Guy Charron fed a pass to defenseman Yvon Labre heading down the slot. Kehoe dove to block it and the Capitals were tied once more.

It was an unhappy night for what might have been, a further closing of the Norris Division gap behind Los Angeles (eight points and Detroit three.) But the Capitals could relish the half-season figures of 11-23-6. Last year's ungrand totals were 11-59-10.

During the Capitals' 80-minute morning drill, McVie became annoyed at a three-quarter-hearted Sirois shot and screamed, "Shoot it like you want to put it in the net."

Sirois shot that way when it counted and said, "I'm not a practice player. He's always after me in practice and I never seem to put the puck in the net when I know he's watching me. The game is different. You forget what happened in practice."

He followed his own shot to tie the game at 1-1 in the first period. Then he whistled a 40-footer into the net off Charron's faceoff conquest to make it 3-1 in the second.

In between, Meehan converted some adept passing by Lane and Rick Bragnalo into his ninth goal of the season. It concluded a remarkable shift in which Meehan and company swarmed all over the Pittsburgh goal.

"We must have had eight shots on that shift," Meehan said. "We were all over them. It was a relief to finally see it go in. It sort of takes the monkey off your back. It's a relief to get the chances and for the line to get the chances. But I'm not pleased to get a tie."

The Capitals, originally scheduled to play at Detroit on Sunday afternoon after a Saturday night date in Montreal, got a break when the NHL announced yesterday the game with the Red Wings has been rescheduled for Monday night to avoid conflict with the Super Bowl.