Ron Low did, considerable damage to the Washington Capitals' prospects when he took his goalie pads to Detroit 2 1/2 years ago and left the Capitals to search for a stopper in the nets. Yesterday, he compounded things by hitting the Caps when they were down.

Low, in his first Capital Centre appearance since April 1977, stopped 39 Washington shots and enabled the outplayed Quebec Nordiques to escape with a 1-1 tie.

The classic save came with 10 1/2 minutes left and the eventual result enscribed on the scoreboard. Washington's Antero Lehtonen checked the puck away from Pierre Lacroix and Wes Jarvis picked it up. Jarvis then fed Lehtonen, the Finn they call "The Cannon," and he blasted at the inviting net. Lehtonen raised his stick to half-staff, and mourned the kick save that followed.

"Somehow his leg came, it was an amazing save," Lehtonen said. "I was positive it was in. Jarvie was coming out and the net was half open. I almost raised the stick, but you never know. That man really wanted to beat us."

He certainly did. Low had been the hero Sunday as the Nordiques beat the Capitals in Quebec, 3-2, and after yesterday's game he was more concerned about the one that got by, a change-of-pace dribbler by Rick Green, than about the 39 that didn't.

"I wanted to beat them bad," Low said. "The goal they put in was brutal. I could have put it in myself. I had my stick down and I think I hit it, then it hit the side of my pad and as I fell it slide across the line."

Low's desire to beat the Capitals goes back to the close of the 1977 season. Low, the team's No. 1 goalie the first three seasons, had lost much of the fans' adulation to Bernie Wolfe, so the club was not particularly disposed to meet Low's salary demands when his contract expired.

In the midst of the sluggish negotiations, Low and his agent persuaded Detroit General Manager Ted Lindsay that the Red Wings could sign Low without providing compensation to Washington. Under those circumstances, the salary Low received was substantial.

Eventally, the Wings passed Walter McKechnie on to Washington as compensation and Low spent more time in Kansas City than Detroit. Low moved on to Quebec in the expansion draft, spent half a season in Syracuse and now has posted a 4-1-2 record for the Nordiques. Ironically, Low really preferred to stay in Washington, he says.

"Washington is the one place I'd rather play, the one place I'd rather live than anywhere but home (in Manitoba)," Low said. "I left for one reason -- financial reasons.

"When I was here, I thought it was great. Tom McVie was a hell of a coach. I think Max McNab does a decent job, but you know who I don't like (Peter O'Malley) in the organization. What made me bitter was that when McNab took over, he said he'd take care of the guys who worked hard and I sure think I did."

Low conceded that he had received a substantial bonus for his 16 victories that third season, but he was having a lot of trouble getting a fat pact out of then club president O'Malley when he pulled his Detroit coup.

Since Low left, the Capitals have worked their way through a number of goaltenders -- Wolfe, Gary Smith, Jim Bedard, Gary Inness, Wayne Stephenson, Rollie Boutin -- and they are still waiting for somebody to play a game the likes of which Low played yesterday.

Oddly, the goal scorer, Green, was the only Capital on the ice who played when Low wore a Washington uniform. Now, Green is playing out his option, heading for the same free-agent route that Low pursued with bittersweet results.

Another discontented ex-Capital returns to the Centre tonight, when defenseman Gord Lane wears the New York Islanders' uniform in a contest that has been moved up to a 7 p.m. start. It is difficult to imagine Lane striking the home club with the sort of Low blow it received yesterday.