For most of the season, Capital Centre critics have focused what dissatisfaction they retain on the Washington Capitals' power play.

The extra-man unit received nothing but praise from the crowd of 13,150 last night, however, as Bobby Carpenter and Greg Theberge utilized third-period penalties to produce the goals that rallied the Capitals to a 5-4 victory over the New Jersey Devils.

Carpenter created a 4-4 tie with 6:28 left, net-ting his 19th goal while Hector Marini was off for hooking. Then Theberge won it with 4:04 remaining on his seventh goal, after Bob Lorimer was caught holding.

Even better news was to follow, for Minnesota was a 4-2 winner on Long Island, enabling the Capitals to climb within one point of the second-place New York Islanders in the Patrick Division.

The Capitals will carry a seven-game unbeaten streak into Quebec tonight for a 7:30 contest against the Nordiques, the last team to earn a decision over Washington.

The Devils moved ahead, 4-3, on Marini's rebound of a Don Lever shot at 5:54 of the third period. Carpenter hit a post from the red line, but otherwise the Capitals had few chances in the next 10 minutes, as the Devils dominated play.

Suddenly, Dennis Maruk tumbled and referee Ron Wicks, who not had employed his whistle to call a penalty for more than 23 minutes, sent Marini to the box. There were some brief problems organizing the ensuing power play, but finally Alan Haworth carried the puck deep down the left side and fed Carpenter, who sent a high drive just under the crossbar to tie the score.

A bit more than two minutes later, Wicks whistled Lever for holding Haworth. Lever shot the puck against the boards in anger and, 12 seconds after he sat in the box, Theberge connected with a 50-foot screened shot from the right point.

All three penalties in the last two periods were called against New Jersey and each time the Capitals scored. Haworth had taken advantage of a second-period holding foul by Joel Quenneville to net his 15th goal for a temporary 3-3 tie.

"We've been saving that weapon," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said, referring to the usually mediocre power play. He praised Haworth for his work in boosting the extra-man unit, saying, "One thing Alan does is hold onto the puck. On Bobby's goal, he entered the zone real deep, made the defenseman commit and set up Bobby. It was a great play."

Haworth has collected nine goals in the last nine games and has earned at least one point in 10 straight games, longest streak by any Capital this season.

Of Theberge, whose status has been shaky, Murray said, "The reason we have him here is to be on the power play. He has shortcomings defensively, but one thing he can do is shoot the puck and skate."

New Jersey Coach Billy MacMillan, head down, said, "That's got to be our toughest loss of the year. We were in the game tonight. It's a frustrating loss . . .

"They were bad penalties in the third period, especially Lorimer. The guy (Haworth) was holding on while Lorimer was trying to let him go."

The losing goaltender was Lindsay Middlebrook, making his first start since Nov. 14. Middlebrook had gone 21 decisions without a victory since his last success on Jan. 13, 1980, but he was pressed into duty when Chico Resch, who had started 17 straight games, overslept and missed the pregame warmup.

"He never got a wakeup call at our hotel (the Sheraton-Lanham)," MacMillan said. "We change hotels the next time in here."

The Capitals fell behind for the first time in seven games when goals by Rick Meagher, Mike Antonovich and Lever carried the Devils to a 3-1 lead in the first 21 1/2 minutes.

Ted Bulley netted his second goal in two games and Haworth put in his power play blast to tie it before New Jersey got one more lead.