It was playoff-style hockey and the shot total of 33 was the lowest ever in a game involving the Washington Capitals. The Capitals, of course, never have participated in a playoff game, but they are getting closer and last night's 3-1 victory over the Minnesota North Stars indicated they may do all right when they get there.

Washington managed only 14 shots, but that was enough to end a 13-game winless streak against both the North Stars and their superb goaltender, Gilles Meloche. In the third period, while the Capitals protected a 2-1 lead, they limited Minnesota to four shots, none in the first 14 1/2 minutes.

Gaetan Duchesne, the empty-net specialist, ended the suspense with two seconds left and now has all three of the Capitals' goals into vacated enemy nets.

The big goal, however, was scored by Ted Bulley, who plays about as often as the North Stars lose. Bulley, dressing instead of Milan Novy because Coach Bryan Murray wanted to match him against big Willi Plett, got his third goal of the season at 1:40 of the third period to snap a 1-1 tie.

A shot from the right point by Brian Engblom sailed over Meloche and the puck settled behind the net. Bulley battled Minnesota's Craig Hartsburg for possession, then attempted a centering pass that slipped behind Meloche and inside the post.

"It was just a lucky play," Bulley said. "I shouldn't have passed it blind like that. When it went in, I just wanted to get back to the faceoff, so I could be sure it counted.

"This was my first goal at Capital Centre. My parents were down from Canada and my dad told me to get him one, so I had to. It's unbelievable coming out and playing once in a while and the toughest part is keeping in shape. I'm whipped now. Oh, well, the Redskins have their Hogs and we have our Dogs."

Meloche agreed that Bulley was one lucky dog.

"I was out three or four feet and Hartsie takes him into the boards and when he gets up the puck is on his stick," Meloche said. "He just stuffs it."

In beating Minnesota for the first time since March 4, 1979, the Capitals extended their latest unbeaten streak to six games and ended a similar Minnesota streak at seven. Murray was earning his 51st victory, in his 120th NHL game, to become the Capitals' winningest coach. Gary Green won 50 of 157 and Tom McVie won 49 of 204.

Washington goalie Al Jensen, if he faced minimal shots, nevertheless came up with some big saves. He stopped three shots within a few seconds thrown at him early in the game by Minnesota's all-star line of Tom McCarthy, Neal Broten, and Dino Ciccarelli, before that trio was neutralized by Duchesne, Glenn Curry and Bobby Gould.

Broten hit a post early in the second period, then Mike Eaves converted a two-on-one break with Hartsburg to match Bengt Gustafsson's first-period power play score.

Jensen was angered by Eaves' goal which came as an unsuccessful Washington power play, and complained vainly to referee Andy Callaman.

"I thought he directed it in with his skate , but the ref said it was off his stick.

"I don't think this was a very tough game. Our defense didn't allow them many tough shots."

The four in the third period were tough enough to worry the crowd of 9,680. Jensen came up especially big to foil Al MacAdam on a two-on-one break, moments after Craig Laughlin hit a post at the other end.

The Capitals seemed in deep trouble when Duchesne was penalized for interference with 3:53 remaining. But the penalty killing unit survived, until Gould sent a headman pass to Doug Jarvis, who was pulled down by Broten with 2:46 left.

That penalty prevented the North Stars from lifting Meloche for a sixth skater until only 30 seconds remained and there were no serious threats. Then Duchesne took another pass from Gould and closed out the scoring.

Except for displeasure with the power play unit that was caught napping and allowed the Minnesota goal, Murray was delighted with the tight-checking game.

"That caliber team is the type of team we'll meet in the playoffs and we knew we had to be responsible defensively."