"Our defense just broke down," said Coach Bryan Murray, succinctly assessing the Capitals' performance tonight after Washington had beaten the Detroit Red Wings, 7-5.

Although the Capitals had opened a 4-0 lead on their listless opponents, the Red Wings swept back into contention with four goals in eight minutes of the middle period. Mike Gartner's shot late in the third period, then an insurance goal by Bob Gould, saved the Washington effort.

"We scored plenty of goals, but forgot about our own responsibility," Murray said. "It was a very mediocre effort."

The Capitals' mediocrity didn't set in until the second period. Early on, they turned two power play chances into numbers on the scoreboard. Dennis Maruk scored at 14:39, aided by Chris Valentine and Darren Veitch, and Gartner scored two minutes later.

Detroit goalie Gilles Gilbert looked stiff-legged in letting those goals through, and the Red Wings replaced him with Corrado Micalef midway through the second period. For a moment, it made no difference: Micalef gave up Ken Houston's goal at 10:06 as if it were a practice shot.

That goal appeared to come off Milan Novy's stick, but Houston was officially credited with it. Novy's minimal command of English probably prevented his questioning the referee, but he got an assist on that goal, as well as two others.

Then, finally, the Red Wings began to play hockey. "I thought they really blew us out at one point," Murray said. "We gambled and gambled, and lost."

Murray didn't blame Pat Riggin for the Red Wing goals. "The goals he gave up were decent," Murray said. "He had no chance on two of them."

Danny Gare got a shot past Riggin at 10:54. Three minutes later, Stan Weir deflected the puck into Riggin's cage before the goalie realized what was happening.

Valentine gave Washington another goal, but before the period was over, two more Red Wings had turned a walkaway into a battle. Mike Blaisdell's goal at 3:07 of the final period evened the score at 5, forcing the Capitals to scramble.

The last period showed up the frustrations felt by both clubs. More bodies than pucks hit the boards, and five fighting penalties were awarded. Detroit's John Ogrodnick scuffled with Randy Holt, and Danny Gare and Lee Norwood got into a hair- or helmet-pulling match at 11:23.

Both teams spent most of the last 20 minutes racing from one zone into the other, with barely a finished play to be seen. Doug Jarvis stole in on a breakaway near the halfway mark, but couldn't position himself and the puck for a score. When Bobby Carpenter's shot wouldn't go the distance, he tried to kick the puck behind Micalef.