The proper tonic for the Washington Capitals' ills arrived at Capital Centre last night, a 20th-place Detroit team that had not won a road game in 16 tries. Unfortunately for the Capitals, they choked on the medicine.

The Red Wings scored three goals in the last seven minutes of the third period to wipe out a two-goal Washington lead, record an unexpected 5-4 victory and extend the Capitals' losing streak to five games.

Detroit Coach Wayne Maxner paused to say a few words to Washington Coach Gary Green, which Green relayed: "That's one you didn't deserve to lose." Green paused in the Capitals' dressing room only long enough to voice similar sentiments: "Guys, you deserved to win the game."

Green was grim afterward, because this was the night to end the slide and when it did not happen the Capitals found themselves faced with a difficult schedule that threatens a long losing stretch. Of the next 13 games, only four are on home ice and two of those are against Philadelphia.

"We played well enough to win," Green said. "We played poorly in the first period of hockey, except we got let down by somebody out there tonight."

The "somebody" was obvious, goal tender Wayne Stephenson, who faced only 19 shots and permitted five to get by, none of which was unstoppable by any stretch of the imagination.

Washington had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie game at 2-2 during a second period in which is outshot the Red Wings, 11-2. Detroit did not fire a shot at Stephenson until just 2:41 remained and that came from outside the blueline.

Goals by Bengt Gustafsson, his second of the game, and Dennis ververgaert made it 4-2 by the midpoint of the third period and Detroit, appearing resigned to another road failure, was hardly threatening.

A holding penalty against Washington's Yvon Labre did not seem especially difficult to kill, as Guy Charron came close to a short-handed score. However, Dale McCourt blasted a shot through Stephenson from the left-wing circle with 6:50 remaining and it gave the Wings a lift.

A battle for the puck behind the Washington net with 3:51 left ended with the puck skipping out to John Ogrodnick, unguarded in the left-wing circle. He had time to tee it up before driving a high shot past Stephenson to tie it up. It was Ogrodnick's second of the game.

Only 3:08 showed on the clock when Errol Thompson hammered a 45-footer past Stephenson, who was unhindered by a screen, and suddenly Detroit was on top, to remain there to the finish. That was Thompson's second goal, too, since he had opened the scoring on another one that hardly helped the goalie's image.

On that one Thompson lost the puck as he cut toward the goal. Stephenson couldn't handle it, either, however, and it bounced off his stick right back to Thompson for an easy score.

The Capitals reached the pits in that first period, Detroit scoring on two of its first three shots. It could have been worse, Willie Huber lining one off a post and McCourt losing control of the puck on a breakaway. For an example of the way Washington was playing, Charron cut across the blueline with a Detroit defenseman out of position and crashed into lineman Mark Pare. The play was halted for offside, but it was suggested facetiously that Pare be penalized for boarding.

The second period was a complete turnabout, as the line of center Gustafsson and wingers Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner dominated the play. Walter set up Gustafsson's score, then converted a Gartner feed.

Early in the third period, Walter set up Gustafsson's second score of the game, then the luckless Charron made a fine pass to help Ververgaert make it 4-2.

It seemed in the bag, until the world came crashing down.

"We've hit the bottom of the barrel," Walter said. "We can't get any lower. We just have to pick ourselves up and be positive. When things go bad, they really go bad. That was unbelievable."

Green quickly retired to his office to watch the replays, a ture case of Capital punishment.

"I don't like to comment until I've seen them over, but some of those goals were very questionalbe," Green said. "I never want to put the emphasis on one person, but it has to start with the goaltending and work its way out."