Paul Mulvey sent the Washington Capitals in front in the third minute of today's game against the struggling Montreal Canadiens.

With the home side looking tighter than a pair of bongos and critical fans showing their displeasure with inept passes and general loose play, it looked as if this might be the day for Washington to end five years of frustration.

By game's end, Montreal prevailed, 3-1, and the Capitals' varied strings of winless efforts had stretched to seven games against all comers and 31 against the Canadiens. Additionally, the Capitals had become the first team to be mathematically eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoff chase.

For penance, the Capitals faced a postage flight to New York and a lengthy bus ride to Philadelphia, where they play another club they never have beaten, the Flyers, at 7 p.m. Sunday. Previous looks at players withered by all-night escapades in Montreal prompted management to this itinarary, with no direct flights to Philadelphia available tonight.

Montreal entered this contest with only two victories in its last nine games and the strain was showing. But a power-play goal by Guy Lafleur ended his personal eight-game drought and then a swift move by Pierre Mondou shattered the Capital's hopes of a breakthrough.

With the score at 1-1 and 23 minutes remaining,a misplay by Mulvey permitted the Canadiens' Mark Napier to deflect the puck out of the Montreal zone into center ice.

Mondou beat Washington defenders Gord Lane and Rick Green to the sliding puck as goalie Jim Bedard hestitated to come out, then backpedaled. With Bedard off balance, Mondou easily coverted the breakaway.

"I should have got it," said the 22-year-old netminder, who blocked 38 shots and was selected the game's No. 2 star. "The ice was bad and I was afraid the puck might have slowed down and I'd caught. It came on me so fast. I didn't think it out the way I should. I should have forced him to make the first move, but I made it and he had me."

After Montreal's Bunny Larocque foiled a breakaway and follow-up combination by Guy Charron, Dough Risebrough wrapped it up for Montreal.

Green trid to pass to Lane along the boards behind the Washington net. Doug Jarvis beat the Lane to the puck, however, and fed Risebrough infront for an easy score.

Mulvey netted his sixth NHL goal at 2:39. Puck carrier Blair Stewart was flattened in the right-wing corner by Montreal's Larry Robinson, but Dennis Hextall pounced on the loose puck and made a quick pass to Mulvey in the slot.

"It was a nice feeling when I got it," Mulveysaid of his first Forum score. "There is so much excitement here, it's the hockey capital, and you tense up, find yourself trying a little too hard. I'd feel a lot better about it if I hadn't screwed up in the third period. After you do a stupid thing like I did, you can't be very happy."

The Canadiens could not get out of their own way and the fans' hoots where making matters worse, until Charron hauled Lafleur down in the slot after Bedard has blocked a Lafleur drive from close range. Referee Wally Harris sentenced the protesting Charron for holding, the only extra-man situation of the game.

"He took a shot and was alone in front and I wanted to push him away." Charron said. "I had my arm around him and I'd lost my stick and he fell, so he called the penalty. Maybe it was, but I thought there were a lot of things like it he didn't call. He easily could have gone the other way on that one."

Lafleur took advantage of the power play by netting his 350th career goal, on a rebound of Jacques Lemaire's blast from the left point. It was Lafleur's first goal in three weeks.

The Canadiens took the first 10 shots of the second period without snapping the tie and the Capitals had some excellent chances before Mondou's breakaway broke things up.

Dennis Maruk sent a pass through the crease and raised his stick when he saw the net bulge, but the contributing factor was Rolf Edberg's stick, not the puck.

Later a three-on-one Washington break was whistled down in midflight when the Capitals' Jack Lynch and Montreal's Bob Gainey exchanged shoves in front of the Washington net.

The Ryan Walter set up Charron, who fanned on the shot, and Walter was wide on his follow-up.

"We needed a little more killer instinct when it was 1-1" said Washington Coach Danny Belisle. "He (Larocque) was up-tight, he wasn't getting much action, and he was jumping on it and freezing it. We kept missing the net when we should have put it away. If we gotten that second goal, I think the percentage was in our favor."

Right wing Bob Sirois departed early in the second period with a severe charley horse above his left knee. He joined Tom Rowe on an injury list that has virtually decimated the Capitals' right side.

"My right skate stuck on the ice and I ran into the boards," Sirois said. "It hurts like hell."