Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.

You had to be there to believe it - and not many were - but the Washington Capitals played a sound, bustling, big-league hockey game last night. That they lost 5-2 to the Vancouver Canucks, and saw their winless streak reach 20, was just another chapter in their inexplicable existence.

In the second period, the Capitals set a record of 19 shots on goal for a home game.Still, the Canucks, with only a five shot output, expanded their lead from 3-0 to 4-0.

On a night when the home team built an overall 38-17 edge in shots, it was easy to blame the losing goal tender, and many of the 6,848 fans did.

They sareastically cheered routine saves by ex-Canuck Gary Smith, chanted "Bernie" in honor of departed favorite Bernie Wolfe, and let out a roar of approval when Smith skated off for a sixth forward with three seconds left.

Smith, however, was bad only in contrast to the winners' netminder, Ceasare Maniago, who was absolutely sensational. Smith was beaten by three deflections and two breakaways and could say afterward, in seeming contradiction but with truth, "I don't think I played all that bad. I just wasn't stopping anything.

Maniago, however, was stopping everything, at least until Dave Forbes took Bill Collins' setup while skating down the left wing early in the third period and produced a goal that also provided Collins with his 300th NHL point. Doug Gibson then netted a rare rebound, gollowing up a Guy Charron breakaway.

"They seem not to have the bounce of the puck," Maniago said of the Capitals. "They're not finishing off their opportunities, not putting the puck in the net. I'm sure one of these days they'll turn it around."

An opportunity comes tonight when the Capitals visit Cleveland for an 8 p.m. date with the Barons. This one won't even be broadcast, so it figures as the wrong time for the club to snap out of its slamp.

Washington went scoreless in the first period for the eighth straight game last night, but it was outplaying a Vancouver team that scored three times. Oh, those buts.

Gibson fed Forbes on a slick two-on-one break that left a virtually open net, but Maniago scrambled back to sit on Forbes' shot.

Rookie Robert Picard, on a feed from Gerry Meehan, hit the inside of the far post, but the puck caromed back through the crease.

Eddy Godwin picked up a deflected pass and sailed in alone, but Maniago broke hisish stick knocking the puck loose.

Bryan Watson cut into the slot and fired a backhander from close range, but Maniago was in his way.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Pit Martin deflected a Sheldon Kannegresser slap shot for his third goal, Chris Oddleifson deflected a Dennis Kearns power-play blast for his fifth, and then Oddleifson netted his sixth with a breakaway backhander from the left-wing circle as Smith went down.

In the second period, a drive by rookie Jere Gillis struck Washington defenseman Larry Bolonchuk and deflected past Smith for Gillis' 11th score and a crushing 4-0 margin.

Despite their obvious frustration and the dissatisfaction of the crowd, the Capitals did not quit. They hustled to the end and maintained some vague hope that this nighmare will soon end.

"The guys have stuck together - it's fantastic," Watson said. "Even when it was 5-2 Forbesy beats two of their guys for an icing call. When you hustle like that, things have got to turn around."

Watson, normally a defenseman, skated the first shift at right wing, because coach Tom McVie wanted "to get the puck in the other team's zone play the man and get the tempo of the game. Bryan did get a good hit and the tempo swung to our side for a while."

"He just read the starting lineup and said, 'Bryan, you're playing right wing,'" Watson said. "I tried to get a couple of hits and get things going."

Going at a good clip for a change was Watson's partner. Picard, who had been enraged Monday when McVie ordered him off the ice at practice. Picard was plus two, delivered some good checks and fired five shots on goal besides that unfortunate post pattern.

Of course, shots on goal alone are not enough to win a hockey game. Washington has now lost four straight in which it outshot the opposition.

"We're not scoring on our chances," Gibson said. "The sooner we start, the sooner we'll get out of this rut."

Some folks expect a real turnabout. A sign at one end of the rink read "Go Caps. Playoffs in 1978, Stanley Cup in 1980."

To that end, general manager Max McNab scheduled a breakfast meeting today with his Vancouver opposite number, Jake Milford.