The Washington Capitals were brutal last night. So, in another sense of the word, were their fans.

While the Capitals stumbled and bumbled to a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the expansion Edmonton Oilers, the crowd of 5,214, smallest in Capital Centre history, poured forth its dissatisfaction.

"Goodbye Danny" was a popular chant in dishonor of Coach Danny Belisle. "Ga-ry" was another, ostensibly in support of alternate goalie Gary Inness but actually a second-hand rap at the man in the nets, Wayne Stephenson.

At the conclusion, while there was an attempt to question Edmonton hero Stan Weir, fans crowded around the interview area screaming, "We want Belisle."

The target of folks who have reached a sixth year in vain search of something positive made it known that he had a few frustrations, too.

"I can't score any goals, but I have to as a pro coach take that as part of the game," Belisle said. "It's not easy. It's very tough. I can't get my frustrations out. I have to harbor it. I have no choice.

"But they were down on Wayne before he stopped one shot. That's a pretty tough situation. He didn't play well and he knows it. He's man enough to admit it. It's unfair to him. The other guy didn't play well Saturday, but they were cheering him.

"Rick Green, they boo him before the National Anthem is over. Any hockey man knows he's been playing super, but he has to be under terrific pressure.

"I'm befuddled somewhat why we played like that. Maybe I lost it today, who knows? We had a constructive meeting and a short practice and I thought they were mentally ready and they came out flat."

The Capitals were so flat that they managed only four shots on goal in the first period, although presented with two power plays. Meanwhile, 36-year-old Cowboy Flett picked up a puck deflected off Ron Chipperfield's stick by Capital Robert Picard and sent Edmonton into a 1-0 lead.

The Oilers, smelling their first road victory, skated like demons and the contrast presented by the sleepwalking Capitals was obvious to even the least knowledgeable of fans.

Early in the second period, there was a significant event. Stephenson was flattened behind his net by Edmonton's Dave Lumlley. It was a legal check and went unpenalized.It also went unavenged by the Capitals. It was a sign that Washington's spirit was lagging.

"The closest guy should react to that," Belisle said. "It should be a natural reaction to thump the guy, penalty or not. The goalie is usually hands off. That's an unwritten law."

If the Oilers felt they could do anything they wished, it was reinforced by three goals within 2 minutes 8 seconds. While the fans chanted and the Capitals watched, Weir, Chipperfield and Wayne Gretzky deposited the puck behind Stepehson, who had no more support than in his moment of physical travail.

Then, the Capitals, in a way, made things worse. Foiled on 30 straight power plays, they suddenly converted on opportunities created by slashing calls to Chipperfield and Bryan Baltimore. Tom Rowe and Ryan Walter were the goal scorers and it was clear to all in attendance how easily the Capitals could beat the visitors with just a little effort.

Owner Abe Pollin did not see Bengt Gustafsson's third failure in two games to convert a breakway, early in the third period, but he had savored the Bullets' television success and found a seat in time to watch Errol Rausse tip in Rowe's long pass to cut the Edmonton margin to 4-3 win 7:39 remaining.

It would have been most unfair, on the basis of effort expended, if Edmonton had not emerged the winter and, for once, justice prevailed.

Gretzky, tripped by Picard, lost the puck but it bounced over the Washington blue line. B. J. MacDonald out fought Rowe for possession and drilled it home to inspire an uproarious reaction among the visiting Oilers. The fans just resumed their chanting.