The Washington Capitals, thrown into disarray by the loss of Paul MacKinnon, moved to restore the status quo yesterday by acquiring defenseman Rick Smith from the Detroit Red Wins for a $2,500 waiver fee.

Smith, 32, is a defensive specialist in the MacKinnon mold and presumably his addition to the backline will permit Alan Hangsleben to return to left wing, where his absence also has virtually removed his Swedish linemates, Rolf Edberg and Bengt Gustafsson, as offensive contributors.

Smith will make his Capital debut tonight when the Buffalo Sabres visit Capital Centre for a 7:30 contest.

Washington fans also will be treated to an almost completely revamped power-play alignment.

"We were pretty vulnerable with MacKinnon out and one more boo-boo would have put us in real trouble," said Washington General Manager Max McNab, "(Jim) McTaggart will be here some day and be here a long time, but to throw him in before he's ready might be a mistake on our part. Rick gives us a good, solid experienced guy back there."

McNab had considered grabbing Smith in the Oct. 8 waiver draft when Boston left him unprotected.Detroit, however, picked ahead of the Capitals and took Smith. Now the Wings, suffering both at the gate and on the ice, are under pressure to eliminate some of their big contracts and made Smith available.

Smith came into the NHL with Boston in 1968 and scored a goal in the last game of the 1970 Stanley Cup final, the time Bobby Orr beat St. Louis in overtime. Later, he played with California and St. Louis, as well as Minnesota of the World Hockey Association, before returning to Boston.

It was in a game against Buffalo, which scored two short-handed goals during one Capital power play opportunity, that the famous cry was born at Capital Centre: "Decline the penalty." Washington Coach Gary Green, already hearing shouts of dissatisfaction from the fans, does not want that particular message repeated tonight.

So yesterday, at the conclusion of the regular practice at Fort Dupont, Green invited 10 players to stay for extra instruction, the 10 who make up the team's new power-play units.

The No. 1 group has Hangsleben and Darren Veitch at the points, with Pat Ribble jamming the crease area and Mike Gartner and Dennis Maruk buzzing around up front.

On the second unit, the point men are Rick Green and Gustafsson, with Bob Kelly in front of the net and Jean Pronovost and Ryan Walter the other forwards.

"We picked out our five quickest guys and put them all out on one unit," Green said. "Hangsleben reacts quickly and should work well with Darren. We took the three biggest guys on the hockey club and determined which one is the quickest; among Green, Ribble and Paul Mulvey, we felt Ribble was the quickest reactor. PeeWee (Maruk) and Mike Gartner are certainly our quickest players.

"The second unit is a hard-working unit. We have Green, who's a good shooter, at the point with a smart guy like Gustafsson. Bob (Kelly) should draw attention in front of the net and Walter and Pronovost can shoot. With that group, we'll try to use the points as much as we can."

The Capitals' power play had failed to produce in its last 13 opportunities and had slipped to 17th in the 2-1 team NHL, with 18.3 percent success. Oddly, the Sabres, usually near the top in penalty killing, stand only 19th, in part becuase of tghe slow starft endured by Don Luce.

The rest of the Sabres have been solid enough and the club comes in with a seven-game unbeaten streak, in direct contrast to the Capitals' seven-game winless string. It is a double jeopardy situation for Washington, too, since the teams meet again Sunday night in Buffalo.

For an added fillip, this is the first meeting of Green and his old mentor, Roger Neilson, as head coaches. Scotty Bowman handled the coaching, with Neilson as an assistant, a year ago in sweeping four straight from Washington, only the last two after Green arrived on the scene.

"There will be a real rivalry on the benches anyway," Green said. "I want to beat him badly. "We've got something going, because Roger is as close a friend as I've had and his assistant, Jim Roberts, is as close a friend as Washington assistant) Bill (Mahoney) has."

Green was an unpaid assistant under Neilson at Peterborough, eventually becoming the head coach after Neilson joined the Toronto organization and was assigned to Dallas.

"I asked Roger for the job and he responded favorably," Green said. "There was no pay, but the way things have turned out I probably should have paid them. What I learned most from Roger was hard work. He taught me the value of prescouting and advocated innovative methods, told me not to assume that because something had always been done one way, that was the way it should be done."