The Washington Capitals limited the Colorado Rockies to 15 shots last night, lowest by four of any Washington opponent this season. Nevertheless, it took third-period goals by Mike Gartner and Jean Pronovost to bring the Capitals from behind for a 4-3 victory.

The triumph lifted the Capitals into undisputed possession of 15th place, two points ahead of Toronto and Edmonton. They have a chance to create more breathing space tonight when they visit Hartford for a 7:30 contest.

"This was a big goal," Provost said of his game-winner, on a rebound of a long backhand by Dennis Maruk. "We had to win this one. In the third period the guys made up their minds. We were determined to take it."

The Rockies, winless on the road in 1981, did not surrender easily. They poured on the pressure in the last three minutes and it took a couple of sharp saves by goalie Mike Palmateer to preserve the victory.

"We got to be more cautious near the end, just sending one man in," Pronovost said. "Maybe we were overcautious, and that sometimes works against you, but tonight it didn't. They were pressing. They needed the goal. They didn't get it."

Two goals by Gelen Currie, the second during a major penalty on Colorado's Merlin Malinowski for high sticking Maruk, gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead midway through the second period. Then the Rockies struck for two goals 31 seconds apart to move in front.

Paul Gagne, the NHL's youngest player at 19 years and a month, scored his second gaols to tie it on a three-on-two-break after Washington's Rick Green lost the puck.

Twelve seonds later, Alan Hangsleben hooked Lucien DuBlois. It took 19 seconds more for Colorado's power play to snap the tie, Rob Ramage connecting from the right point.

"During that five-minute major, we made a couple of bad passes and started to panic," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "We got frustrated and we became disorganized, even theough we did get the one goal. We had to get the train back on the track between the second and third periods."

The capitals played the first 17 minutes of the third period like a high-speed express, outshooting the Rockies by 15-2 and jumping ahead despite some fine saves by Colorado golaie Phil Myre.

Gartner took a pass from Ryan Walter and beat Myre on a breakaway at 5:02 to tie the score. Myre dove to try to knock the puck off Gartner's stick and missed, leaving Gartner an easy backhand into an open net. It was Gartner's 38th goal, his eighth in the last six games. Walter had returned after taking a half-dozen stiches above the upper lip when a puck deflected into his face.

On the winning goal, at 9:20, Maruk lofted a backhand from the blueline and Myre could not control it, leaving Pronovost an alley inside the right post for the rebound and his 21st goal.

The Rockies are 20th in the 21-team NHL, but they looked like the Montreal Canadiens over the last three minutes -- or perhaps the Capitals made them look good by hanging back and conceding half the ice.

"They had their five best out there the last couple of minutes and their five best can play on most teams in the NHL," Gary Green said. We sent one man in and laid back. We wanted to watch (Lanny) McDonald at the point and keep them from getting good shots."

If the tactics were not wholly successful, the result was, although the late barrage of three shots on goal and some near misses left open to question Green's comment, "We played a great third period."

Currie had scored only three goals in 58 games over two seasons, but he hit twice in five shots last night and also turned in his usual fine defensive game.That earned him No. 1 star honors and a guest role on the post-game show before the remnants of the crowd of 7,530.

"I think it's a combination of skating mmore and getting more opportunities," said Curries, explaining his emergence as a scorer. "When I skate more, I have more time to move with the puck."

"I'd like to have the third line contribute as much as the first and second lines. I'm starting to play the way I used to play (in Hershey), handling the puck and stickhandling."

Currie's biggest thrill was neither the two goals nor the victory. It was sticking with the Capitals past the noon deadline firming rosters for the remainder of the season.

"I've just been waiting for March 10 to roll around, at 12 o'clock," Currie said, smiling.