For the first time in 41 games, the Washington Capitals drew a blank tonight. Montreal's Ken Dryden blocked 31 shots, 18 in the final period, to give the Canadiens a 2-0 victory.

It was Dryden's ninth career shutout over Washington and he once confessed to boredom after an almost routine such effort. The Capitals kept him busy this time, however, with what may have been their best overall performance in 28 winless meetings with the Stanley Cup champions.

"We had unbelievable chances, but Dryden was hot and that was the difference," said defenseman Yvon Labre, who has suffered through so many Washington-Montreal noncontests. "I don't know if that was the best game we've ever played against them -- I remember a 2-1 loss where we could have been even better -- but we certainly got better chances this time."

"I'm extremely proud of our team," said Coach Danny Belisle. "We had a discussion before the game about what we wanted to do and everything went perfectly. It's just that nothing got through Dryden. If I thought I could get 30 games out of them like this, I could sit back and smile."

Besides Dryden, smiles ruled out by two goals within 44 seconds late in the first period. Guy Lafleur netted his 41st and Bob Gainey his 12th and the nights scoring was concluded.

Pierre Mondou began the first scoring play by poking the puck away from Washington's Blair Stewart at the Capitals' blue line. Steve Shutt picked it up, avoided an attempted hip check by Leif Svensson and skated in on a breakway. Goalie Gary Inness blocked Shutt's initial shot, as well as a rebound attempt, before Lafleur netted the second rebound.

With the Capitals still in a temporary state of shock -- they had dominated play earlier -- Gainey recovered an errant pass from Guy Lapointe in the left-wing circle and drilled a shot past Inness.

Inness was playing despite a bruised left arm, suffered when he was struck by a shot in the pregame warmup. He displayed an ugly purple welt on the inside of the arm, below the elbow, and said he had considered not playing.

"It loosened up as the game went on and I wasn't that busy most of the game," Inness said. "We played well offensively and defensively. It was just one letdown on one shift that killed us and that's Montreal's style. They take advantage of everything you give them."

Inness' left shoulder was bruised by a shot during the 9-3 victory over Colorado Thursday and there seems a reasonable chance that Belisle will send Bernie Wolfe into the nets when the Capitals play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Sunday night. It would be Wolfe's first game action since Jan. 7.

The Canadiens used Guiney, the league's best defensive forward of last season, at left defense in place of Larry Robinson, who suffered a back injury during the Challenge Cup series. Gainey responded well enough to be voted No. 3 star, but it was evident Montreal without Robinson is just a bit below invincible status.

"If there was ever a night when they were ready to be had, this was it," Labre said. "Robinson being out makes a difference. Still, it's always that 'but-a.' Some night I'd like to be explaining how we beat them."

'We'll beat them next time," said Ryan Walter, who was assigned to cover LaFleur much of the night. "He (Lafleur) can skate and you have to contain him. You have to hawk him a little bit. Other than that one shift, I think we outplayed them."

Besides their frustration at coming close so many times without scoring, the Capitals were upset with referee Wally Harris' officiating, or lack of it. Harris suffered a four-stitch cut behind his ear when was was struck by Stewarths stick in the first period and he called only two penalties all night, one on each team.

Several players banged their sticks on the boards and Belisle screamed at Harris after Montreal defenseman Serge Savard pulled the puck underneath himself to stop a furious Washington attack in the third period. Harris later explained that the net had obstructed his view of the incident.

Washington's Dennis Maruk was warned to shut up when he berated Harris for failing to call a penalty on a Canadian who had been playing with a broken stick.

Belisle pulled Inness for a sixth skater with 90 seconds left and the Capitals swarmed over Dryden in futile attempts to wreck his shutout.

This was only the third zero experienced by the Capitals this season, the first since Buffalo's Don Edwards stopped them on Nov. 11. Dryden had another earlier. It was the first time Washington had been blanked on the road since Dryden did it here March 25, 1978, and it was the 10th time Montreal has held the Capitals scoreless, with Bunny Larocque earning the other one.

"Keep your statistics," Labre said.