When Washington's Bengt Gustafsson drew the only penalty of the third period with 5:15 left and the score 3-3 against Detroit last night, the Capitals found themselves in deep trouble. But not for long.

Forty seconds into the penalty, Bob Gould maneuvered through the startled Red Wings for a short-handed score that gave Washington a 4-3 victory before 10,297 at Capital Centre.

The triumph that came so hard drew the Capitals within four points of first-place Philadelphia in the Patrick Division. With one game in hand, Washington visits the Flyers for a Thursday showdown.

It seemed last night, despite the Capitals' 40-29 margin in shots, that the Flyers already were occupying some of the home team's thoughts, rather than a Detroit club that came in with the worst record in the NHL.

"We didn't get fired up, I guess," Gould said. "We kind of went out dead-headed and we weren't into the game. But after the first period we came in and (Coach) Bryan (Murray) said a few things, and Rod (Langway) and Louie (Franceschetti) helped wake us up. At least, we sharpened up enough to get two points."

There was considerable doubt all the way, however, as the two goaltenders, Detroit's Greg Stefan and Washington's Pete Peeters, atoned for defensive breakdowns with some superb saves.

Three times the Capitals forged ahead and three times the Red Wings caught up, the last time at 10:41 of the third period when Greg Smith made a screened 50-footer from the right point.

Four minutes later, Stefan made a good save on Franceschetti, then the goalie played the puck behind his net and scrambled back toward the crease. Gustafsson knocked him into the boards and referee Bryan Lewis, skating with his broken left arm in a cast, raised his right arm for the first time in the period.

"Smith and I ran together and he (Stefan) was there, too, trying to get back," Gustafsson said. "I pushed him a little and he took a dive. I was mad, but we got a win out of it, so now I'm happy."

The win developed because Gould, in the threatening manner of Capitals penalty-killers circa 1986, was sweeping in the offensive zone and pounced on a puck that was deflected off a Detroit skate. Gould cut past two defenders, momentarily lost possession of the puck as he approached the net and then shoved it home an instant before Stefan reached down to smother it.

It was Washington's 10th short-handed goal, tying the club record set in 1976-77.

"A couple times earlier when I picked it up inside their blueline, I went to the top of the circle and shot and he stopped it easily," Gould said. "This time I went to the net, and I think I caught them a little by surprise.

"I tried to drag the puck around the defenseman and it got through. Then I got to the other side and banged it in. The goalie was pretty close to stopping it. The defenseman didn't take me out. If he'd grabbed my arm, he could have stopped me, because I just had one hand on the stick when I shot it."

It was the seventh goal of the season for Gould, a fourth-liner and penalty-killing expert who was moved up between Greg Adams and Craig Laughlin last night because Alan Haworth was still feeling the effects of the concussion he suffered Saturday. Gould put six shots on goal.

Peeters, now unbeaten in 11 career decisions against Detroit, gloved a tough shot by Steve Yzerman with four minutes left and thereafter the Capitals' forechecking was so effective that Detroit could not lift Stefan for an extra skater until only 10 seconds remained, when it was too late to set up a play.

Franceschetti converted a Mike Gartner pass for his season's third goal and the first of Washington's four leads. Yzerman tied it after Joe Kocur banged Gartner behind the Washington net, forcing an errant pass.

Dave Christian's 24th goal, on a power play, was the only score of the second period. Detroit got to 2-2 on Billy Carroll's rebound at 6:13 of the third period, Carroll's first goal this season.

Bob Carpenter's 10th goal made it 3-2 for Washington, but Smith matched it.

Rookie Detroit winger Chris Cichocki was cut badly on the throat and tongue, caught by Gustafsson's stick late in the first period. The tongue was stitched, and Cichocki taken to George Washington University Hospital for an overnight stay.

"I tried to twist my stick away from him and he skated right into it," said Gustafsson, who did not receive a penalty for the incident.