Two goals behind in the third period, the Washington Capitals finally awoke last night to the disheartening possibility that they were about to blow an important game to the lowly New Jersey Devils.

Scoring four goals in less than six minutes, the Capitals instead earned a 5-3 victory and climbed three points ahead of the New York Islanders in the race for second place in the Patrick Division. Each team has five games remaining.

After Scott Stevens gave the 9,713 fans at Capital Centre a chance to applaud his eighth goal, Bob Carpenter followed with the tying and winning scores, increasing his season total to 29. Then Bobby Gould applied the clincher with his 23rd.

"It's so important to go up three points," said Carpenter, who prospered on a new line centering Gaetan Duchesne and Chris Valentine. "We plan on winning every game, but we need one to fall back on, just in case. We have to beat a team like New Jersey and we realized when we fell behind 3-1 that we had to get going."

"It's hard to criticize them, the way they've played, but again tonight we didn't show the life we're capable of and have displayed most of the season," said Coach Bryan Murray. "But when we needed it, we were able to put some people out there who were capable of exploding and getting some big goals."

Washington needed something big after New Jersey rookie Pat Verbeek got his first NHL goal on a rebound at 3:43 of the third period to boost the Devils' advantage to 3-1. The way Ron Low, an original Capital, was performing in the New Jersey net, that margin appeared difficult to overcome.

Stevens removed Low's aura of invincibility 65 seconds later, moving in from the left-wing boards to shoot and then netting his own rebound when Low left the puck lying in the crease.

"The defenseman forced me and I just tried to put it on net, hoping somebody would get a rebound," Stevens said. "The goalie didn't see it and the puck lay there so long I was afraid the ref would blow the whistle, but I finally got it and hit the rebound off the post and into the net."

Fifty-three seconds later, it was even. Carpenter took Valentine's centering pass in the slot and converted it before he was flattened by New Jersey's Mike Antonovich.

"I had my body between him and the puck, so I knew I could shoot it even if he hit me," Carpenter said.

When the Devils' Jan Ludvig was chased for hooking Timo Blomqvist, it took Washington's oft-maligned power play only 20 seconds to provide the winning goal.

It came on a classic move, as Carpenter took Paul MacKinnon's pass in full stride, cut past defenseman Rob Palmer just outside the New Jersey blueline, faked the last defender, Joel Quenneville, and beat Low with a backhander. It came at 7:24 for the Capitals' third goal in 2 minutes 36 seconds.

"Paul made a big play, the way he passed it to me," Carpenter said. "Coming out of the zone on the power play, I had 60 or 70 feet to skate with the puck and I had such a head of steam when I came across the middle that fast that he (Quenneville) either had to trip me or I got past him. I dipped my shoulder and went one way while he guessed the other."

Rod Langway came out of the penalty box, skated down the left wing despite Tapio Levo's close attention and set up Gould for the clincher at 10:21.

"Kid (Currie) got the puck out of the zone and when I came across to change, I just stayed on and took advantage of the opportunity," Langway said. "Levo was hooking me and hooking me and I didn't have a shot, so I just knifed the puck to Gouldie and he had an empty net."

When coincidental minor penalties reduced each team by one player with 4:10 left, New Jersey Coach Billy MacMillan lifted Low for a sixth skater. Play continued uninterrupted for 2 minutes 1 second, then a whistle for offside brought Low back in. He was yanked a second time with 48 seconds on Urges Full NATO Role for Spain By George C. Wilson Washington Post Staff Writer

MADRID, March 24--Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger met today with leaders of Spain's new Socialist government in an effort to convince them that their interests lie not only in remaining in NATO but also in becoming a full partner.

Premier Felipe Gonzalez put Spain's future with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in doubt by pledging in campaign speeches last year to let Spanish voters decide by referendum whether they want to stay in the alliance or go their own way. Since his election, he has postponed the referendum indefinitely.

Weinberger said he tried to make the case for collective defense by citing what he called a growing Soviet threat to all of Western Europe, Spain's need for new warning radar and the Spanish Air Force's desire to buy 84 F18 fighter-bombers from the United States for $2.2 billion.

His meetings with Gonzalez and the Spanish foreign and defense ministers came after Spain attended as an observer, not a full partner, the NATO defense ministers' session in Vilamoura, Portugal, that ended yesterday. After Gonzalez's electoral victory last year, Spain suspended its request to enter the formal NATO military alliance.

"Obviously," Weinberger told reporters, "we think full participation is a very important way to strengthen each member's own capabilities as well as the capabilities of the alliance as a whole."

One of Spain's capabilities that needs strengthening, according to U.S. and Spanish officials, is radar that could warn of enemy air attacks. U.S. technology to upgrade these air defenses could be used as an inducement to Spanish partnership in NATO.

As for the F18, Weinberger said Spain's leaders were "interested in the terms of acquisition and ways in which the plane can be maintained and serviced." It is thought that the Reagan administration could offer help in buying the planes and, through provision of advisers, in maintaining them. Weinberger said any special military assistance will be contingent on congressional approval.

The defense secretary said there will be further meetings, including visits to Washington later this year by Spanish officials. "We didn't come to sign a treaty or secure a specific goal," Weinberger said. He continued to argue for full Spanish partnership in NATO in a speech at a dinner sponsored by a foreign affairs group here.

"NATO nations have come to realize that while we may have differences among ourselves, we must band together and provide for our mutual security," Weinberger said in his prepared speech.

"Spain's contribution will help preserve the security for all of Western Europe, and as is true with all the members, your contribution will also help preserve the security of Spain. We see NATO membership as a natural outgrowth of your democratic evolution. . ."

Antonio Sanchez Gijon, executive director of the international group Weinberger addressed, said in an interview that the Spanish military favors full NATO partnership, believing that this is the best way to prepare the country for the realities of modern warfare.

Another dividend, Sanchez Gijon said, concerns Gilbraltar. He said the Spanish people fervently desire to regain that territory from the British, and a stronger Spain would give the British less reason to maintain forces in Gibraltar and thus to keep the territory. graphics/photo: Spanish Defense Minister Narcis Serthe clock.

Milan Novy, who moved between Carpenter's usual wingers, Alan Haworth and Craig Laughlin, accounted for Washington's first goal early in the second period, before Don Lever and Steve Tambellini scored 77 seconds apart for a 2-1 New Jersey lead.

Asked about the flip-flop with Novy, Carpenter said, "We had trouble going last night (in the 1-1 tie against Vancouver). Everybody expected each other to do the work. It was just time for a change. Gaets is a 100 percent worker and Chris is a great playmaker, so things worked out well for us tonight."

The Capitals completed the seven-game season series against New Jersey with six victories and a tie.

The Capitals played without three regulars--suspended defenseman Randy Holt and injured wingers Bengt Gustafsson (strained back) and Ken Houston (strained knee ligaments). MacKinnon was called up from Hershey for the sixth time this season to replace Holt.