Tom McVie kept his teeth in his mouth last night in Capital Centre. They were gritted most of the time, as his Winnipeg Jets were overwhelmed by his old club, the Washington Capitals, 6-3.

The score does not give proper credit to the Capitals' effort. They outshot the Jets, 49-15, setting a club record for shots and missing the low mark for the opposition by only three.

Despite such dominance, there was reason for home team concern until late in the final period. Scoring three times on only 10 shots against goalie Wayne Stephenson, the Jets were still creating enough of a fuss with a 4-3 deficit to prompt Washington Coach Danny Belisle to stand on the bench to watch play in the Caps' end.

Even at 5-3, doubt remained, with Stephenson fighting the puck. Willy Lindstrom drilled a shot off the post that threatened to make it a dogfight once more before Errol Rausse whipped the clincher past Winnipeg's gallant goalie, Gary Smith.

"The way Smitty had to work, I though we might have to mail him home in a box," McVie said, displaying his usual sense of humor in the face of adversity. "He was alone most of the night. Now he knows how General Custer feels."

McVie was out of work for four months after the Capitals fired him and he figures to be idle a couple of weeks when the league finishes processing Tuesday's reports from Atlanta, where he tried to take a punch at the Flames' coach, Al MacNeil, pulled off coat, tie and false teeth and was ejected for the second time this season.

"I've had a couple of rough days and I was nervous before the game," McVie said. "I thought we could win this game, but it wasn't to be. The Washington club played awfully well. It made for a tough homecoming for me, but the script doesn't always go the way you want it."

McVie received a loud ovation when he was introduced, quickly cut off by announcer Mary Brooks. Belisle later was booed lustily.

"They (the fans) were very kind and I feel very good about it," McVie said. "I wouldn't want to be in his (Belisle's) shoes. I wouldn't want that to happen to me in Winnipeg.

"I would sure like to get my hands on that young bunch of guys over there. I'd sure as hell like to use my style and system on those athletes and it looks to me like they could use it."

Belisle refused to enter the controversy that still surrounds his hiring and McVie's firing.

"I wanted to win very badly, but not because of any of that bull," Belisle said. "Those charades and Hollywood nonsense aren't hockey.

"We've lost some games and now we're home and we have to get going before we're in hole. Everytime we made a mistake tonight it cost us a goal and it looked like we were snakebit, like we'd never get a break."

Of the question most frequently asked in the stands, why Stephenson was playing instead of Gary Innes, who has played far better this season, Belisle said, "We know what he's done in the past, with a 2.80 average in the National League, and if we're going to improve in goaltending, he's going to do it for us.Gary has been playing well. It's a matter of reading."

Rolf Edberg and Mark Lofthouse each scored twice for Washington, Edberg firing five shots on goal for the third straight game. Lofthouse tested Smith seven times in only his third appearance since being recalled from Hershey last week. Bengt Gustafsson and Rausse completed the scoring. f

Showing a return to past form was defenseman Robert Picard, who found life with McVie an exasperating experience as an NHL rookie. But Picard, like Belisle and the rest of the Capitals, was more interested in victory than in victimizing the old coach.

"The main thing was to win," Picard said. "This is a team we need to beat to make the playoffs.

"McVie coming back was something extra for the people here and I thought there'd be more people. For me it was important, because offensively I haven't been doing what I was expected to and I've been hurting the team and me, mentally. I think I did a better job of playing my game tonight."

The basic for any hockey franchise, of course, is the attendance. The turnout for McVie's homecoming was 6,308, which will not buy a lot of grapes, even sour ones.