Aggressive hockey returned to Capital Centre last night. Unfortunately for the Capitals, so did Paul Mulvey, in an unfamiliar role.

Mulvey, dealt to Pittsburgh by Washington last summer as compensation for Orest Kindrachuk, made a perfect pass to set up Peter Lee for the winning goal in the third period as the Penguins inflicted the 13th straight defeat on the Capitals, 3-2.

"It was nice," said Mulvey, who did not receive any of the 30 penalties distributed by referee Dave Newell. "I wanted to come back and play well here. I didn't want to put a lot of pressure on myself and E.J. (Coach Eddie Johnston) helped. He told me this wouldn't be the only game I'd ever play in Washington."

The Washington players, who wanted Bryan Murray as their new coach and got him, tried hard to start Murray out with a victory. But three fruitless sessions with two extra men and the usual third-period empty feeling combined to thwart them.

Dennis Maruk scored both goals for the Capitals, on power plays, to bring Washington back from a 2-0 deficit. He was not around, however, to go for a tying hat trick because he was ejected by Newell with 11:31 remaining.

Maruk went to the Pittsburgh bench, waved his stick and yelled at defenseman Pat Price, who had cross-checked him moments before. The Penguins raised their sticks and Mike Bullard jumped over the boards. Newell then dealt 10-minute misconducts to Maruk and Bullard. When Maruk protested, he was given a second misconduct.

"I was fed up with Price's cheap shots and I told him I wouldn't put up with it any more," Maruk said. "I couldn't believe I got 10 minutes for that. I told Newell I thought it was a dumb call and he gave me another one."

The Capitals played with two extra men for 90 seconds and 20 seconds in the first period without scoring. In the second period, with the score 2-2, they had a two-man advantage for two minutes, launching only one shot, just as the Pittsburgh penalties ended.

"For a professional hockey team, I haven't seen a group less organized in five-on-three situations in a long time," Murray said. "I wound up playing guys from Hershey, because I at least knew what they would do. Five-on-three should create scoring chances and we weren't doing it. That was the hockey game as far as I'm concerned."

Murray said the weariness of the Capitals in the third period was "very obvious. I worked them hard at the end of practices the last few days and there were people dragging. We have to get people in condition or this hockey club will be in a desperate situation in the third period."

The crowd of 7,279, smallest of the season, contained many who seemed as unimpressed with Murray as he was with his team's conditioning. He was booed before the game and subjected to varied taunts while Pittsburgh built an early 2-0 lead.

Rick Kehoe opened the scoring on a power-play shot from the left-wing circle, then Paul Baxter got off a shot from the point that trickled over the goal line off goaltender Dave Parro's pad.

For the next 13 minutes, though, Pittsburgh was held without a shot on goal. The Capitals sent 15 at Pittsburgh's Michel Dion and two got by, both on deflections by Maruk, who withstood considerable buffeting in front of the net.

Timo Blomqvist had both shots that Maruk got his stick on and, if there was a bright spot for the Capitals, it was the play of the Finnish defenseman, who had five other shots blocked by Dion.

The winning goal came at 2:03 of the third period. Mulvey skated down the left wing, drew defenseman Terry Murray toward him and sent a perfect pass to Lee, cutting toward the crease from the right side. Parro had no chance and the Capitals had few chances thereafter.

Jean Pronovost, a former Penguin captain, had the best opportunity to tie it, skating behind defenseman Russ Anderson but unable to lift the puck over Dion, a World Hockey Association teammate of Washington's Mike Gartner in 1978-79.

The Capitals fell 12 points behind the New York Rangers, the fourth-place occupants in the Patrick Division, and 16 back of Pittsburgh, which won its fourth straight and moved into second, a point ahead of Philadelphia.

It made things that much more difficult for Murray, whose positive words were confined to: "I was impressed and pleased with the effort and the willingness of the guys to mix it up."

That was a step forward. There are many more steps to be climbed.