On Monday night, the Washington Capitals watched Detroit goalie Rogie Vachon on television and saw him yield six goals of questionable quality to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Last night, up close and personal, Vachon played like the million-plus dollars he will receive from the Red Wings in the next few seasons.

The Capitals fired a club-record 45 shots at Vachon. He stopped 42 and earned the Red Wings a 4-3 victory in what Washington Coach Danny Belisle conceded was "possibly out biggest game of the year."

While Washington was wilting in its first home-ice appearance in 17 days, the Pittsburgh Penguins were upsetting Montreal, 3-1, to dump the Capitals an almost insurmountable 11 points back in the struggle for a playoff berth.

For Belisle, it was the most unpleasant night of his 59-game coaching career. Fans behind the Washington bench, their remarks clear and critical in the emptiness left by the second smallest Capital Centre hockey crowd, 5,526, were on Belisle throughout the contest.

Afterwards, as he left, they continued the verbal assault and he waved his fist and shouted back.

"I guess I lost the game, I don't know," Belisle said. "I didn't get any goals tonight, big deal. I never worry about that."

The Caps were playing their fifth game in seven nights and they had arrived at Capital Centre at 3 a.m. yesterday, following a 5-3 loss in Atlanta, to find their cars buried in snow. While they were shoveling, the Red Wings were sleeping peacefully.

It was the Capitals who were sleeping during the first 7 minutes 20 seconds of play. Dan Bolduc, Bill Hogaboam and Dale McCourt connected on three of the first five shots at the Washington goalie. It was Gary Inness, unsettled in the game's first minute when Detroit's Perry Miller slid underneath him and sent Inness to the ice head first.

"I had a headache," Inness said, but that's all. It didn't bother me. I saw him (Miller) at the last second and he went right under me."

Two power-play goals by Dennis Maruk and Tom Rowe's 20th goal of the season pulled the Caps even by the first minute of the second period. Thereafter, they blasted 27 shots on goal and none got past Vachon.

At 13:51 of the second period, the Red Wings took advantage of a lapse by Washington defenseman Leif Svensson to mount a three-on-two break. Accurate passes by Paul Woods and Reed Larson left Bolduc alone in front and he beat Inness with what would eventually become the winner.

Rowe, the fifth Capital this season to reach the 20-goal mark, had a breakaway early in the third period, but Nick Libett was able to push the puck off his stick from behind. Then Vachon knocked the disk off Maruk's stick after Rowe set him up in front.

Those were the Capitals' best chances of a third period in which they outshot the Red Wings, 13-4, but Vachon once again showed that he can be a superior goaltender away from the derisive remarks of the Detroit fans.

"Monday he let in a lot of bad goals, but he sure played a good game tonight," Rowe said. "He's a hell of a goaltender."

"He played well and he was pretty lucky," Maruk said. "We hit four posts and then he held us right off. He made some great saves. He was stopping shots that he couldn't see.

"It's disappointing for us. The scheduling has been kind of brutal I was shoveling my driveway till 5 this morning just to come in my house. I think that's who we were so sluggish early. We're only human beings.We're not robots."

"This was possibly our biggest game of the year and we hit it under unfortunate circumstances," Belisle said. "We aren't making excuses, but at 3 o'clock in the morning we were digging our cars out of the snow. Those little things add up."

Detroit entered the game winless in its last 23 on the road, since an October success in Colorado. The Red Wing fans may have trouble believing the result, since neither television nor radio relayed the action back home. For Vachon, it was out of sight, out of mind, and he loved it.

Belisle, asked after the game whether he planned any changes, reacted with anger, saying, "What changes can we make?"

Swapping a few fans with the Red Wings?.