With Rod Langway out of action indefinitely, the Washington Capitals are a bit short on defense. So the trade they engineered yesterday came as something of a surprise, with defenseman Paul Cavallini dispatched to St. Louis for a second-round draft choice.

General Manager David Poile conceded the move might be considered a strange one under the circumstances. But he indicated there could be further deals and, in any event, Cavallini was not a big man in the team's future.

"Greg Smith will be back tomorrow night and I have every confidence Rod is going to be back," Poile said. "I felt this was a fair price for Paul and it may enable us to do something down the road.

"I'm happy with the play of Bill Houlder, as well as Yves Beaudoin in Binghamton. Grant Jennings and Tony Kellin have been hurt, but they look like prospects and we want to give them a chance."

The Capitals will get their choice of Montreal's second-round pick in 1988, which had become the Blues' property, or St. Louis' No. 2 in 1989.

Cavallini, 22, was a 10th-round selection in the 1984 entry draft. He played 24 games with Washington this season, recording five points and 66 penalty minutes. He was beaten badly by Kevin Dineen on Hartford's winning goal Wednesday and that apparently confirmed Poile's suspicion that Cavallini was not improving.

For his part, Cavallini was delighted to be going to St. Louis, where he figures to see more ice time and will join his brother, Gino.

"I was shocked, but it gives me a happy feeling inside," Cavallini said. "It's been a lifelong dream, a family dream, for me to play in the NHL with my brother.

"I'm excited, but in the other turn I wish I'd been able to prove to the Washington Capitals that I can play for them. I'm going to have a chance now in St. Louis and I hope I can help the Blues."

Smith's return, 11 days after he was struck on the throat by the stick of Edmonton's Norm Lacombe, should help to settle a Washington defense that has yielded 19 goals in four games.

If the Capitals ever are going to start a winning roll, the time would appear to be now. Beginning with tonight's Capital Centre contest against Chicago, the Capitals will play five straight games against opponents from the lightly regarded Norris Division.

The Capitals will visit Toronto Tuesday and Detroit Wednesday, then return home to play the Maple Leafs Friday and St. Louis Sunday.

"We just have to win some games," Poile said. "I don't care who we're playing or how many games. Two games under .500 after 28 games is not anywhere close to where I thought we'd be. But if there's pressure on us to win, think of the pressure on the Chicago Blackhawks to win. There no longer are any easy games in the NHL."

Coach Bryan Murray said much the same: "We've got to win some hockey games. The Leafs and Detroit at home have been playing competitively, but we definitely have to win some games in this stretch. The last few games, we've given up far too many goals."

Certainly, Chicago figures to be the tonic to rejuvenate a struggling team. The Blackhawks, burdened by injuries, have lost seven straight games, during which they have been outscored, 44-13, and outshot, 294-180.

Things got so bad during Wednesday's 6-2 loss to Buffalo that after the Sabres' sixth goal late in the second period, Chicago Stadium fans showered the ice with packs of player postcards passed out as a pregame promotion. The debris became so thick the officials called a halt and tacked the rest of the period onto the start of the third.

Rookie Coach Bob Murdoch, able to maintain his sense of humor, said: "The most embarrassing thing was that when they were throwing things on the ice, I picked one up to see what they were. I looked at the package and there was my picture, right on top."

The Capitals are not at a physical peak for this one, although Pete Peeters is scheduled to start in goal after nursing a strained knee ligament for two weeks.

Center Dale Hunter, his hip bruised by Dineen's opening-shift check in Hartford Wednesday, skated for just two minutes yesterday and departed for treatment. Hunter's availability tonight will be a last-minute decision.

Mike Gartner twisted an ankle when Bob Gould fell on him during a three-on-three drill at yesterday's practice and figures to be in some discomfort tonight, although he passed it off as "a little boo-boo."

Penguins 6, Islanders 4:

Goalie Billy Smith was 12-0-2 against the Penguins since April 4, 1982, but Mario Lemieux's goal and four assists ended that streak in Pittsburgh.

Oilers 2, Canucks 1:

In Edmonton, when Wayne Gretzky assisted on Jari Kurri's second-period goal, it was his 1,591st point, one better than Phil Esposito. Gretzky is third, 259 behind leader Gordie Howe.

Grant Fuhr set an Oilers record with 124 minutes 26 second of shutout goaltending before Greg Adams scored on a power play.

Flames 5, Devils 1:

Hakan Loob and Jim Peplinski each scored two goals in the second period, costing the Devils their second loss in 15 games in East Rutherford, N.J.

Red Wings 3, Flyers 3:

In Detroit, Bob Probert scored with 6:10 left in regulation to tie the Flyers.

Nordiques 3, Jets 3:

Michel Goulet scored with 21 seconds left in regulation to give the Nordiques a tie in Winnipeg.