Crime-ridden, slum-infested Detroit is not considered one of the premier stops on the National Hockey League merry-go-round. For the Washington Capitals' Bryan Watson, however, the Motor City holds some treasured memories.

Watson spent two tours of duty with the Red Wings, in banner years and bummers, with Gordie Howe and without. Tonight, when he skates onto the Olympia Ice with the Capitals (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30), he can be assured of a warm, mostly friendly reception.

'We Still Love Ya Bugs" was the way a signmaker greeted Watson last season, on his first trip back after being traded here for Greg Joly. Watson, as usual, played his heart out that night, helping goalie Bernie Wolfe blank the Red Wings, 2-0.

A month ago, the Red Wings rolled over the Capitals, 6-4, but nobody showed to greater advantage on the ice than Watson. On one occasion, during a major penalty, Watson performed successful penalty-killing duty for 3 minutes 20 seconds without relief.

"For me, going into Detroit has always been special," Watson said yesterday while the Capitals tried to shake off the after effects of Tuesday's 4-1 loss to Los Angeles. "I love the city, I know a lot of people there, and I had a lot of fun there. The people were really nice to me.

"Whenever you go into a town you once played, you want to prove them wrong. You want to do well in front of people you know.'

The Red Wings are playoff contenders after several down years, but Watson tries not to think about what might have been.

"It's all hindsight," he said. "The same thing happened in Pittsburgh after I was traded. Things turned around and they started to move. You can't look back on it, can't look at someone else's team.

"The people here have been really nice, as dismal as the year has been. I'm aware of people urging me and the team on, even though we haven't given them a lot to cheer about. I'm really very happy here, but I'm sorry about what's happened."

The Capitals' prospects tonight and in Toronto Saturday were dimmed when winger Bob Sirois had to be left at home with a sprained left wrist.

Ace Bailey, like Watson a crowd favorite in Detroit, also was left behind, although he said his right knee felt satisfactory Tuesday when he played wearing a metal brace similar to those that supported Joe Namath.

Bailey missed the last Detroit visit also, when a sign vainly proclaimed, "Do it to 'em Ace."

Ron Lalonde, the Capitals' No. 1 penalty killer, is expected to return to action Saturday in Toronto. He has not played since he suffered a shoulder separation Jan. 22.

Tonight's contest figures to be a physical one. The Capitals have nine players with 60 or more penalty minutes, more than any other team in the NHL. The Red Wings are next in line with eight. Detroit (1,098) and Washington (921) rank 2-3 in penalty minutes behind Philadelphia (1,223).

A look at the Capital record book shows how hard fought the meetings with the Red Wings have been. Washington's one-game penalty high 6.9 minutes, came in a 3-3 tie at Detroit March 13, 1977. The combined figure of 127 minutes that night represents another team record.

The Capital Centre penalty record is 121, also against Detroit on March 30, 1976. Watson was a major Red Wing contributor to that one, being assessed 23 minutes of Detroit't total of 83.

To the all-time NHL penalty leader (2.105minutes), that is just another memory in a 15-season NHL career.