Early in the third period tonight, with the Washington Capitals leading the New York Rangers by a goal, Coach Bryan Murray took a timeout to set up a four-on-three power play. Two off-target passes, by Darren Veitch and Mike Gartner, laid waste to the plans.

With three minutes left and New York a goal ahead, an improvised defensive change sent Veitch out on the unfamiliar left side, from where he whipped a 55-foot shot into the net to salvage a 4-4 tie for Washington.

With results like that, Murray had to wonder why he didn't stay home and watch the Super Bowl, as did about one-third of the announced crowd of 17,355.

"I guess the way we came back and then they had a couple of chances at the end and didn't score, I've got to be happy with the tie," Murray said. "But I'm disappointed that we didn't get the win. We could have put it away a couple of times and we didn't. That timeout was typical. We set up in a diamond and we had a man free, but two God-awful passes ruined the whole point we made."

After that fiasco, which extended the Capitals' recent power-play record to four for 44, the Rangers and the faithful in the stands were revived when Barry Beck delivered some thumping checks on Torrie Robertson and Bobby Gould. Pat Hickey and Eddie Johnstone then scored 58 seconds apart and the Rangers, suddenly ahead by 4-3, seemed headed for victory.

As the 57th minute ended, however, Washington defenseman Paul MacKinnon came off the ice after a brief shift and Randy Holt, his normal replacement, was not aware of it. So Veitch jumped out for one of his few lifetime experiences on the left side.

Lou Franceschetti, hustling behind the Ranger goal, yanked the puck away from Nick Fotiu and passed it along the rear boards to Robertson. He in turn sent a long pass to Veitch at the left point and headed for the slot. Veitch hit the far corner as goalie Steve Weeks never moved, screened by Robertson and Ranger Carol Vadnais, who was trying in vain to shove him away from the net.

"I wasn't supposed to be out there, but I went out when Mac came off and there was a hole," Veitch said. "I was just aiming at the net. I saw Fotiu coming and I shot the puck just as he went down."

"I love New York," said Franceschetti, who has collected five of his six points against the Rangers.

"If we played this team every night, we'd have a heck of a chance to make the playoffs," said Murray, whose club has two victories and two ties in five games with the Rangers. Washington, now winless in nine games, last won here Jan. 3 and has posted two of its three triumphs in the last six weeks at Madison Square Garden.

The Capitals twice enjoyed two-goal leads tonight. Gould, promoted to the No. 1 line with Ryan Walter and Dennis Maruk, opened the scoring on a play that earned Maruk his 500th NHL point. Maruk also assisted on a goal by Glen Currie that made it 2-0 and, after Johnstone put New York on the board, Maruk netted his 34th goal for a 3-1 margin.

The three-point night, after he had been blanked two straight games for the first time this season, gave Maruk 77 points.

Late in the second period, with each team a man short, Mike Rogers exploited an inept Washington line change to pull New York within one goal.

Three of the four Capitals were within a few feet of the bench when Tom Laidlaw sent a quick pass up the middle to Rogers. Jim McTaggart, the only Capital in normal playing position, tried to check Rogers from the side but missed. McTaggart then spun and tried to slash Rogers, who eluded him once again and beat goalie Al Jensen with a backhander just inside the post.

Maruk had an excellent chance to rebuild the two-goal margin when he blocked an Andre Dore shot and sailed in on a breakaway. Ranger goalie Steve Weeks threw out his glove, however, and managed to deflect Maruk's shot over the crossbar. The aborted power play came next, followed by the Rangers' comeback, and it seemed hopeless until Veitch salvaged the tie.