When defenseman Bryan Watson, then 34, was dealt to the Washington Capitals by Detroit 13 months ago for Greg Joly, the so-called smart word was that Watson was washed up. Although his courage had never been questioned, there was much doubt about those aging legs.

Anybody who saw the Capitals' 4-0 shutout of Los Angeles a week ago knows that the legs have kept pace with the heart. If Watson has played a better game in his lifetime, it does not come to mind. It was no aberration, either, because in the last six games Watson and partner Robert Picard have not been on the ice for any opposition equal-strength goals.

"Things have been going pretty well for us," Watson conceded. "The biggest things is that we've been moving the puck together, skating well in our own end, moving the puck as quick as we can. It's been one play and out, not two or three passes. Of course, what's helped us is the way the wing men are coming back, giving us a chance to stand up. And if we're making mistakes, the goaltenders have saved us."

Besides his excellent play on the ice, Watson has worked to unite the team off it. If his methods include filling a player's pockets with shaving cream and clipping a tie into several segments, at least he can take a joke as well as administer it.

"I'm accused of things I really don't do," Watson said. "But with 20 guys together as much as we are, a lot of funny things happen in the dressing room. The game itself is very serious and you have to concentrate on the ice, but you have to have fun, too. It's a good thing to have the guys together, keep the guys loose."

"Before Bryan came here, we didn't have any character on the team," said coach Tom McVie. "Now we've got lots. He's a hell of an inspiration to anybody who wants to play the game of hockey. He's a hell of a team man. I don't imagine there's anything he wouldn't do for his teammates. Every player in the league respects him, even though they may not like him."

"He's got a lot of spunk," said Montreal coach Scotty Bowman. "I'd like to have him on my team, but when he's on the other team I don't like him."

"There were five seconds left in the second period and we had a faceoff in the Washington end," recalled Montreal winger Bob Gainey. "Instead of just waiting for the period to end, Watson was positioning the Caps. That's when I knew Washington was for real."

Tonight the Red Wings return to Capital Centre for a 7:30 contest and fans can expect to see a vintage Watson performance.

"I want to beat them, of course," Watson said. "The other night in the shower I was telling Gerry Meehan how well he played against Buffalo and we were talking about how easy it is to get up for old teams. Gerry played for Buffalo for years. You always try to show them they made a mistake getting rid of you and you want to play well against your old teammates."

It's also good policy to make your general manager aware of your value, especially if you can't pin it on your scoring figures.

The Capitals showed considerable improvement last season after Watson's arrival. Seeing a paragraph in a Capital Centre publication detailing the club's rise in production, Watson marked "Watson arrived" at the lowest point of the graph and tacked it on Max McNab's door.

Watson was distressed at the team's poor start this fall, but he doesn't think the Capitals are out of the running for the playoffs, something that has eluded him since he played in Pittsburgh in 1972.

"We've got 41 games left and we're playing our best hockey all year," Watson said. "We've got to push on. We should be so far out it's ridiculous, but we're not. We're still there. There's no reason we can't make it."

Watson doesn't pass up any opportunity, real or superstitious, to keep good things moving. When a reporter who had talked with Watson after four straight nonlosing games began to leave the dressing room without conversation after Saturday's 4-4 tie with Buffalo, Watson called him over, "even if you just say hello."

Watson, far from admitting any retirement plans, says "I feel great right now. I've got another year on my contract and I hope to play after that.My legs feel great and that's the biggest thing. I've skated better since I've come here and I'm in a lot better shape than I was for five or six years. I'm a stronger skater and I have more endurance."

Watson, only 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, is adept as upsetting an opponent's concentration, offering a little nudge or jab with the stick to break things up. Such tactics have helped him to his NHL record of 2,067 penalty minutes, but they have also prevented a lot of goals.

"Just making something go wrong is a big part of playing defense," Watson said. "It's the little things that help you win, often things people never notice. Like getting in a guy's way and forcing him to go around you when your partner has the puck. That extra step can mean clearing the zone or not."

"He doesn't pick his spots," McVie said of Watson. "He takes the guy with the puck out of the play no matter who he is. Look at Dave Schultz. Bryan takes him out like anyone else. Schultz doesn't give Bryan cheap shots. He respects him.

"The good Lord didn't endow Bryan with all the abilities, but he gets the job done."

Flu-ridden Bob Girard did not practice yesterday. Mike Marson, also ailing, left after the weight training and Bob Sirois departed before the two-hour skating session had ended. "The respiratory system is vital to a hockey team and when a cold is running through it can raise hell with endurance," McNab said. . . An inflamed tendon has set back Yvon Labre's return at least three more days. . . The Capitals have not lost to Detroit in their last nine meetings.