Capitals' coach Tommy McVie was down but not out. His third-season team had been closing in on the Los Angeles Kings in the race for the third and last playoff spot in their division of the National Hockey League before they were beaten back badly Wednesday night in the Forum.

The Kings finished off the Caps before they got started, with four goals on seven shots in the first 11 minutes of the contest, which degenerated into a brawling rout. The Kings went into the game with a six-point lead over the Caps; a 7-2 victory later they led by eight points.

"When I came in last season I knew we had a long way to go. I thought we were getting there until last night," McVie admitted. "Something like this brings you back to earth. We know now we still have a way to go. But we are not giving up. We are regrouping and we're going to make another run at it."

The first four goals all followed steals. Goalie Ron Low was quilty of giving away the puck once, then two giveaways by Jack Lynch and one by Jean Lemieux led to a barrage that brought the turnout of 9,960 to their feet and roaring.

The Caps came back in the second period when Blair Stewart and newly acquired Craig Patrick scored to cut the count to 4-2. Patrick put a 10-footer past Rogie Vachon as the two King defensemen got in each other's way. Then Bob Sirois blocked Dave Hutchison's shot at the blue line, skated down the right side, drew Vachon out and fed a pass to Stewart, who stuck it into an empty net.

Before the middle session ended, however, Butch Goring had gotten a power-play goal from a scramble at the goal-mouth to halt the Cap rally. In the third period Goring knocked in a rebound shot by Marcel Dionne to complete the rout. That stopped the Caps' unbeaten streak at four.

Goring's goals gave him 20 for the sixth straight season, while Dionne's assist put him back into the league lead in scoring.

"We have no superstars such as these," sighed McVie. "When you make mistakes against men like these, they take advantage of them. The Kings made mistakes, too, but we didn't take advantage of them.

"I don't think we've ever been better prepared for a game. It was a big game and we were ready. We got in early Tuesday and got in a practice. We had more ice time Wednesday morning. We were really fired up by Wednesday night.

"But we are young and inexperienced and they just got away from us fast. We flirted with them midway in the game. One more goal might have turned it around. Instead they got a goal after we got a penalty when Gord Smith was called for tripping. And that was that.

"We didn't give up, but they didn't ease up. We fought them to the finish, but they were the better team this time. Maybe next time will be different. You have to keep hope."

"We were pointing for this one because it was a big one," said Kings' coach Bob Pulford. "Maybe we used to take the Caps for granted, but we don't any more. They were closing in on us and we wanted to beat them back. We expect we'll have to do it again and again from now on."

The Caps haven't beaten the Kings in four games this season, with two games to go in March. They haven't beat the Kings in eight games in the Forum, and they have won only once in 15 games in their short time as a team. But at least now they are receiving respect.

"It's something, I suppose," sighed McVie. "But what it is is that the other teams are ready for a tough time from us now and we have to be even better than we've been to beat them. The Kings were flying from the start tonight and we got going too late.

"They embarrassed us. They disappointed us. But they didn't discourage us," he said.

The Caps fought the Kings up and down the ice despite the lopsided score. There were several fights and near-fights. Gordie Lane lost to Dave Schultz and drew with Hutchison in two bouts. Lynch drew with Hutchison. Bill Riley and Bryan Watson each defeated.Neal Komadoski.

The verdicts offered are unofficial, one was hurt. Near the finish referee.

Sticks flew as well as fists, but no Bob Meyers was handing out 10-minute misconducts like he had a pocket-full. A total of 108 minutes in penalites was assessed.

After regrouping in Washington, the Caps are to fly to New York for a Saturday night game with the Islanders. Meanwhile, the Kings will be at home to mighty Montreal. So if the Caps can win, they could close in again.