DETROIT, DEC. 16 -- In the spirit of the holidays, the Washington Capitals spread a lot of good cheer through Joe Louis Arena tonight. The 19,293 fans were in a jolly mood throughout as their beloved Detroit Red Wings snapped a five-game winless streak with a 6-1 waltz past the struggling Capitals.

Washington, fifth in the Patrick Division, fell three games below .500 for the first time this season at 13-16-2. This was the Capitals' most one-sided setback after a series of close, tough-luck losses, and it left them only two points up on the sixth-place New York Rangers.

"I hope this is the bottom of the barrel," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "This was absolutely the worst, the way they bumped us around. They handled us physically all night. And it was almost like Christmas time, the way we were giving them stuff."

John Chabot, who entered the game with a total of 12 points in 29 games, managed to collect a goal and four assists for the Red Wings. Petr Klima had two goals and two assists.

Goalie Greg Stefan earned his first victory over Washington in five career decisions, but lost his shutout bid when Craig Laughlin scored for the Capitals early in the third period.

The Red Wings were on the ice when the Capitals arrived at 5:30 p.m., resuming a strange pregame ritual that has proven successful for no clear reason. Detroit is 7-0-1 when it skates two hours before game time.

Meanwhile, the Capitals were wasting most of the day traveling from Toronto, where they dropped a 5-3 decision Tuesday. The players held a meeting after that one and the Capitals were still talking tonight -- at Murray's insistence -- when the third period was scheduled to begin.

They received a minor penalty for arriving late for the faceoff, which directly led to Detroit's sixth goal, scored three seconds after the penalty expired.

"I just kept them in there," Murray said. "I thought I'd get their attention. The way they played the last 10 minutes of the second period was the worst I've had to put up with at any time by any means. Everybody was playing by himself and there was no teamwork at all."

Tuesday in Toronto, it took the Capitals more than seven minutes to put a shot on goal, by which time they were trailing, 2-0. Tonight, they needed almost 10, but they still were in a scoreless standoff at that stage.

Early in the game, Peter Sundstrom was alone in front after a setup by Mike Gartner. But Sundstrom, who hasn't scored since Oct. 27, missed the net.

Then, while Greg Smith was off for hooking, Bengt Gustafsson and Mike Gartner mounted a shorthanded two-on-one. Gustafsson carried the puck into the goalie, who turned it aside, and Gartner's rebound was wide.

When play moved to the other end, the Red Wings controlled the puck almost a minute, until Mike O'Connell drilled a 45-footer past goalie Clint Malarchuk, who was screened by his own defenseman, Kevin Hatcher.

After Washington's Dave Christian rattled a post, the Red Wings made it 2-0 when Klima used Smith as a screen to beat Malarchuk with only 20 seconds left in the first period.

Early in the second period, Kelly Miller made a sensational move in a shorthanded situation, spinning around Darren Veitch and eluding Steve Yzerman to wind up alone in front. Miller, who hasn't scored since Nov. 14, then shot it wide.

Once again, the Red Wings quickly connected at the other end. Klima hooked the puck away from Smith as he wound up for a clear and Chabot fed Dave Barr for the score that made it 3-0.

Yzerman scored on a breakaway, Klima one-timed the puck near the left post and Chabot netted a rebound off the rear boards.

"I thought we were really ready," Murray said. "There was a lot of noise and enthusiasm in the room, but too many guys got discouraged too early."

"Are we getting the bad breaks?" Malarchuk asked rhetorically. "Are we ever! We just aren't getting any luck at all. We have to get some breaks, get some bounces our way. When you get a couple of wins, then you're full of confidence and you get on a roll."

The Red Wings tried hard to be charitable and Chabot said, "They're struggling now, but they have too much talent to stay down long . . . I was surprised to get five points. Anytime it's over one, I'm surprised."

Stefan made only 20 saves and said, "When teams are down, you have to step on them. I owed them a few, but the way we dominated, I really didn't have that much to do."