At the start of the third period last night, the man for whom the game meant more than anyone in Capital Centre, Max McNab, said: "I hope you see a little history."

Instead, the general manager of the Capitals saw the all-too-familiar sight of the Montreal Canadiens getting serious when that was necessary, overcoming an earlier three-goal deficit to lead by one and win in a breeze.

There had been hope, if not confidence, before the game that maybe, just maybe, the most embarrassing record in all of professional team sport might be ended. The Caps had been zero for life against Montreal, a 0-25-1 frustration worse than anything the Mets ever saw in their worst nightmare.

The Caps were coming off the best month in their five-year history, the Canadiens were injured and on a 10-game unbeaten streak. What better ingredients for an upset stew?

And for more than six minutes the 13,479 fans could taste it. Their Caps had run off three goals against the team McNab, with a smile, had called "the '27 Yankees." McNab, of course, knew better than to get too excited too early.

"I don't know if this is in the (Montreal) game plan or not," he said. "But you know they've scored over five goals a game over their last eight games."

McNab is a bear of a man, narrow-faced with steel-colored hair and not given to outward emotion. Mostly, his game face is a blank, his posture, hands clasped in prayer-like fashion as he hunches in his seat behind the goal the Caps attacked twice.

"I'm not much of a conversationalist," he said. "My wife won't sit with me." Still, he could not hide his feelings about this game, its short and long-term effects on his team.

"We just want to beat them so bad," he said. "We went into Vancouver earlier this year and won -- and it was the first time we'd ever won in Canada. I don't like to see that, us the lead item in the papers that way when we get to a town.

"We've never beaten them (the Canadiens) and it's been rubbing us. But a lot of others haven't beaten them very often, either, especially in Montreal.

"The biggest battle we have on our hands is to get to the point where the players believe they can play against a team like Montreal. Confidence, I guess that's it. We've had a good streak, and it hasn't been a fluke. Everyone has worked hard and played up to his capabilities.

"The first few years (of an expansion franchise) you're satisfied to make a good game (against a team such as Montreal). Now we've got to get over that hurdle, to start thinking wins.

"That's one of the reasons for changes in personnel, in addition to getting better talent, to eliminate the ones who can't lose that feeling.

"For our young players, it's almost desperate (to beat Montreal soon). They all were winners before they got here and we don't want losing to get to become a habit. We don't want them to change their games.

"When you're young, it's possible to get overawed with teams rated as the best ever put together."

Injuries kept that estimation from applying to the on-ice Canadiens last night, although they did field 13 first-round draft choices to the Capitals' three.

"They're very much like the Dallas club in the NFL,"McNab said. "Almost all the players are home brewed. They don't know any different system. And they don't hurry anyone in development. When they bring somebody up, he's ready."

McNab was talking when the Caps either were leading or still in contention after two periods. In the final period, when the Canadiens dominated, McNab was mostly silent, the signs of dejection being an occasional snap of his fingers or smacking his right fist into his left palm or muttering a naughty phrase.

After Guy Lafleur put the puck on a teammate's stick from 60 feet and a Cap failed in a similar situation a few seconds later, McNab said: "That's the difference. And they have a way of making you do things you don't do against other clubs."

Midway through the final period, most of the crowd began to leave. One was heard mumbling: "We won't see them beat the Canadiens in our lifetime." He was not yet in middle age. McNab had seen enough with 2:55 left, his team down by 8-4, and walked to his nearby office.

"You'll get 'em sometime," he was told. Then more emotion spilled out.

"They can leave you with the feeling you haven't got anything," he said. "You go so well -- and then they come at you and it takes a couple days to assess your talent. You can't say you don't have anything, but you don't think that maybe what you had for a month... you know?"