The Washington Capitols were short circuited yesterday. Further decimated in personnel and betrayed as usual by an inept power play, the Capitals dropped a 6-3 decision to the Detroit Red Wings.

Detroit, down 3-1 after one period, benefited from a freak major penalty against the Capitals' Gord Smith, two shorthanded scores and two last-minute empty net goals. The Wings also were aided by the weariness of a Washington team that had battled to a 5-2 victory in Pittsburgh only 15 hours before.

With Robert Picard idled by a broken right hand, Ron Lalonde forced out early by a shoulder injury, Jean Lemieux limited to power-play duty and Craig Patrick benched, the Capitals were, for most pusposes, skating with only 13 men. It wasn't enough.

"It's tough when you look down the bench and nobody's there, said Washington coach Tom McVie "Detroit knew it. They just kept pounding and finally the wall broke. I think it was a pretty gutty performance by our hockey club even though we made a lot of mistakes. Some of our guys gave me their hearts. And some other guys game me nothing."

One who gave everything he had, and then some, was Bryan Watson. The 35-year old defenseman was not on the ice for a single Detroit goal, a remarkable statistic because he played more than half the game, battling bully boy Dan Maloney all the way.

"Every time he comes in here, he plays better, McVie said. "He was the best hockey player on both sides, no doubt about it. It was a hell of an effort."

Maloney poleaxed old teammate Watson in the head in the third period, but the resilient Capital explained, "It was a gut reaction, just instinct on his part. I hit him in the boards pretty hard and he just reacted. That's the way we play the game. He's a great competitor. I hate him on the ice, but I really love the guy."

There isn't much love between these teams, as can be attested by the penalty totals - Detroit, 13 for 37 minutes: the Capitals, 10 for 26. The first violation came after only 21 seconds, as Detroit pest Dennis Polonich high sticked Gord Smith in the back of the head.

Two goals were scored with Polonich off, one by each team. Detroit's Dennis Hextall stole the puck from Guy Charron and beat Jim Bedard on a breakaway. Bill Riley tied it 32 seconds later, rebounding Gerry Meehan's shot.

Bob Sirois ended an eight-game drought by scoring his 18th goal, from the right-wing circle. Then Sirois get up Meehan with a perfect pass and Meehan, adeptly shifting the puck from backhand to forehand, left Detroit goalie Jim Rutherford rolling in helpless despair. It was Meehan's 12th goal, third in two games.

Ahead 3-1, the Capitals received a great opportunity when Polonich (elbowing) and Maloney (complaining) were penalized at the same time. But it took 1 minute 35 seconds of the five-on-three situation for Washington to move the puck across the Detroit blue line. The only shot, a routine effort by Lemieux, came with three seconds left.

Rookie Dale McCourt collected the initial portion of his first NHL hat trick early in the second period and then Smith was assessed a major penalty when his stick caught Andre St. Laurent in the mouth, inflicting a two-stitch cut.

"That came at a bad time and it game them a cheap goal," Smith said. "I was standing up and he cut across. I was trying to poke the puck away from him and I hit the blade of his stick. He's a righthand shot and as he turned my stick slid right up his stick and caught him in the mouth. I don't think it was worth five minutes."

Further disaster struck when Lalonde tangled with Vaclav Nedomansky behind the Detroit net and wound up with his right arm in a sling. The extend of the injury to the shoulder will be determined by X-rays today.

"I was forechecking Nedomansky and I went low to check him," Lalonde said. "He had a full head of steam coming around the net and his knee caught me in the shoulder."

With Watson skating the first 3 minutes 20 seconds of the major penalty and with Rick Bragnalo and Dave Forbes playing superbly, it seemed the Capitals might survive. But with only 45 seconds left McCourt's shot from the right point was deflected by Hextall to St. Laurent barely outside the crease. His 19th goal tied it.

After Polonich elbowed Mike Marson, the Capitals' power play electrocuted itself. Smith was caught out of position as McCourt took Terry Harper clear, skated down the right side and beat Bedard from the right-wing circle. It was the fourth shorthanded goal yielded by the Capitals in the last three games.

It was Detroit's first victory over the Capitals here since March 24, 1976, after three ties and a defeat. And it was a big one, lifting the Wings 12 points ahead of Washington.