Ahead 2-0 with two minutes to play, the Washington Capitals and an exuberant crowd of 10,744 could taste the treat of their first victory over the Montreal Canadiens last night. Incredibly, it was just one more despicable trick.

Goals by Bob Gainey and Rejean Houle turned the Cinderella Capitals into pumpkins yet one more time as the contest ended in a 2-2 tie. There were boos at the finish, obviously from frustration. The players could understand.

"How can that team be so lucky?" asked Washington captain Ryan Walter. "I know it's more than luck, but we outplayed them for 58 minutes and we had so many chances to go three goals up. That hurts."

"We worked our butts off for 58 minutes and nothing," said defenseman Robert Picard. "What do we have to do to beat that team?"

"It's just one of those games you lose at the wire," said Coach Danny Belisle, treating it as a defeat and surely it seemed that way to all the Capitals. "You run a hell or a race and get nipped at the wire. That team -- just give them an opening and that is what happens."

Most frustrated of all, perhaps, was Dennis Maruk, the Capitals' leading scorer, who played no part in the proceedings.

"We should have had that one, we should have had it," said Maruk as he limped out the door, toward Arlington Hospital and Thursday surgery for a torn ligament in his right knee. He will be out about two months, another blow the Capitals do not need as they struggle to establish themselves as a legitimate NHL contender.

Last night they played like champions. For 50 minutes, they broke up Montreal plays at the red line, and the forwards came back defensively in a masterly effort. For the first 17 minutes, in fact, Montreal managed only one shot at goaltender Gary Inness.

By game's end, Inness faced 29, and many of the 27 saves were spectacular.Still, it was not until the last 10 minutes that the Canadiens were able to exert their usual pressure.

As the Capitals were forced farther back in their end, it became apparent that they were in trouble. But Inness kept the zero on the scoreboard until only 100 seconds remained. Then Gainey swept in to net a rebound of a shot by Lafleur.

Montreal pulled goalie Denis Herron for a sixth forward and the Caps got close enough to the empty net to smell it. They did not put the puck in it, however, and when play swept to the other end, Houle banged in a loose puck from close range with 40 seconds left to pull the candy out of the celebrants' mouths.

"That's why they're the Stanley Cup champions," said Inness. "They never quit. When Montreal throws everything at you, you'd better be sharp and not make any mistakes. They play with confidence. They see they can steal a point, and they do it.

"We're not happy with a point and that's a good sign, when we're mad because we only tied Montreal. It's a step in the right direction, but not a complete step. The team played well, our best game defensively, no question." c

Inness has not posted a shutout in 5 1/2 years and admitted he dared to dream of ending that streak.

"Once I did think shutout, but I slapped myself," he said. "I thought, 'Let's get two points." That's all that matters. I'm not a shutout goaltender. Something always happens."

Something always happens to Mike Gartner, too. He had a hat trick's worth of chances, but he never did score, and the worst memory of all was of striking a goal post on a two-on-one break with Guy Charron late in the second period. That would have made it 3-0, the closest of many opportunities for such a bulge.

"That's my fifth post this year," Gartner said. "I'm averaging a breakaway a game, but things just aren't falling into place. I'm not worried as long as I'm getting chances, but I'm sure gettng perturbed."

Charron, returning after a 10-day layoff with a pulled thigh muscle, was awarded a penalty shot in the first period after Serge Savard tripped him from behind. But Herron got just enough of his body on Charron's shot to send it sailing wide of the net.

Antero Lehtonen put the Capitals on the scoreboard 1 1/2 minutes after that disappointment, beating Herron with a quick wrist shot from the slot after Bengt Gustafsson stole the puck from Steve Shutt.

Washington had an 8-1 edge in shots at the 17-minute mark, then Montreal tested Inness with eight in a row. But a sudden reversal of momentum made the Capitals' ninth shot a successful one, as Errol Rausse took Charron's deflected pass in front, whirled and drilled the puck past Herron for a 2-3 lead.

Gartner, Walter and Rolf Edberg had excellent chances to boost the score, but they failed, just as Inness turned back some good Montreal efforts, once reaching back to pull a Lafleur shot off the goal line.

Eventually, Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Gainey and Houle applied pressure the Capitals could not withstand and for the 33rd time they failed to beat Montreal. The Canadiens were aided, perhaps, by a timeout Belisle called with 2:01 remaining, and the coach brought that move up himself.

"I second-guessed myself on the timeout, but I was using guys in my own end so much that I count on, that I felt at least one of them had to get a rest," Belisle said. "We missed all kinds of chances when we were ahead 2-0 and this game is a downer at the moment, but tomorrow when you analyze it it will be a moral victory."

Yeah, and maybe Santa Claus will ride a broomstick for Halloween.