With sparkplugs Tom Rowe and Ryan Walter disconnected, the Washington Capitals were left shorthanded last night. They came up short in just about every department, dropping a 6-1 decision to the Minnesota North Stars as 6,538 Capital Centre fans voiced their discontent.

Rowe was completting a two-game suspension and Walter, whose parents had flown in from British Columbia for the weekend, could not overcome the pain caused by torn muscle below his rib cage, an injury suffered Thursday in Boston.

Rowe and Walter suffered some more, along with the fans, as they sat in the stands watching this game. The Capitals were never in it, falling behind 3-0, after the first period, and with hot-handed Gilles Meloche making 32 saves in the Minnesota net, there was little hope of a comeback.

"I just feel great playing in this building," Meloche said. "Even before the game. I was thinking shutout. I don't know the reason, but that's the way it is."

Meloche was just being diplomatic. The reason for his confidence of course, was the opposition. The Capitals are now 2-10-2 at home, a ghastly record that is cutting into the already thin ranks of loyalists and causing sleepless nights for General Manager Max McNab and Coach Danny Belisle.

"It's an uphill battle," Belisle said. "We've lost three in a row and you get frustrated and discouraged. But you get up the next morning and get back in the race. Better teams than us have lost three in a row.

"We don't have the depth. When you lose guys like Rowe and Walter and have to juggle the lineup, it shows. And they (the North Stars) played well. They were just playing under par before."

The Capitals had posted one of their seven seasonal victories over the North Stars in Bloomington, Minn., on Nov. 15, by a 3-2 score. Last night's Minnesota team had no resemblance to that outfit a month ago. Neither did the Capitals.

"I think they played a lot better last time," said Kent-Erik Anderson, who scored two Minnesota goals. "And they played a pretty good game last night (at Boston). We saw it on TV. But tonight, well, when you're behind by three goals in your own place after the first period, it is hard to come back."

It was 6-0 before Washington scored its shutout breaker. That goal came off the stick of Doug Patey, who at 1 p.m. was completing a warmup with the Hershey Bears in Rochester. When Walter's status became certain, Patey was flown in and the goal was in the nature of a birthday present (he will be 22 Wednesday) and a Christmas gift.

For everyone else, it was a stocking full of coal. Guy Charron and Robert Picard rose red-faced after chasing together in a corner. Bob Girard flubbed an open backhander with Meloche out of position. Mark Lofthouse fired a rebound wide after a save on Rolf Edberg handcuffed Meloche. Dennis Maruk shot wide with Meloche at his mercy, then shook his head as Meloche foiled a breakaway.

Probably the most embarrassed Capital was Michel Bergeron. He lost the puck on a first-period power play, permitting Andersson to skate in for a shorthanded breakaway that gave the North Stars a 2-0 lead. It was the fifth such backfire by Washington's extraman team.

Earlier, defenseman Brad Maxwell blasted a 35-foot shot past goalie Jim Bedard. It was the first goal for Mawell, who had 18 as a rookie a year ago.

Rookie Steve Payne collected his second NHL goal, off rookie Bob Smith's feed from behind the net, in the final minute of the period.

Andersson made it 4-0 by converting Gary Sargent's fine pass while anchored just outside the crease. Then Greg Smith blasted a 50-footer past a screened Bedard, who departed after the second period.

Relief goalie Bernie Wolfe was beaten by Sargent's 40-foot power-play shot after Tim Young captured a face-off from Maruk in the Washington end.

Guy Charron's pass from behind the net up Patey with 11:33 remaining. Meloche prevented further scoring, although the Capitals had a 14-5 shooting advantage in the final period.

Washington outshot the North Stars, 33-22, and set a club record by outfiring an opponent for the fourth straight game. As the man said, statistics are for losers.