A game that began with high hopes in the snowy high country ended in disaster for the Washington Capitals tonight.

Jack Valiquette deflected Mike McEwen's slap shot past Washington's gallant goalie, Wayne Stephenson, with only 1 minute 22 seconds left to enable the Colorado Rockies to escape with a 3-3 tie and extend the Capitals' winless streak to six games.

Worse, defenseman Pete Scamurra injured his left knee when he was tripped by Colorado's Wilf Paiemont in the first period. There appeared to by ligament damage in the knee, which was repaired by surgery last spring.

"I didn't feel too bad," Scamurra said. "I was going to stay in for the power play. I skated toward the bench to see if he wanted to keep me in and there was a sharp pain in the knee. It's really sore now."

Additionally, defenseman Yvan Labre bruised his right knee and will return Wednesday with Scamurra. With the club reduced to four healthy defenseman, rookie Greg Theberge is expected to be called up for Wednesday night's game in Chicago.

The Capitals brought a five-game losing streak here in a heavy snowstorm a year ago and snapped out of their slump with a 4-1 victory. When flakes began falling Monday night, eventually piling up to more than 13 inches and reducing the crowd to 2,003, it was accepted as a favorable omen.

When Mike Gartner shattered a 2-2 tie with only 3:16 remaining, the Capitals could almost taste the victory they need so desperately. Gord Lane was chased for high sticking 31 seconds later, however, and the Rockies' mediocre power play (now seven for 67) was able to achieve a deadlock.

"That really takes the heart out of the guys," said Coach Gary Green. "A tie against Colorado is disappointing. Even with all those injuries, I think we have a better team than they do."

Stephenson was exceptional, stopping 41 shots. He blocked 18 during a scoreless first period as the Capitals started very slowly. Colorado had a 14-3 edge in shots after nine minutes and twice Stephenson was forced to stop breakaways.

"We didn't jump at all in the first period," Green said. "We were all right positionally, but it doesn't do any good to be in the right place if you're not accelerating. The legs just weren't there. They talk about the altitude here hurting visiting teams, but I'm afraid our overall conditioning is still lacking."

Stephenson was struck in the chest by a skate early in the second period, but after five minutes of ministrations from trainer Gump Embro, he stayed in the game.

"I think my game's starting to come around," Stephenson said. "It's taken long enough, but I feel sharp. I couldn't do a thing with that last one. It hit a guy in front and just seemed to drop in the net. Whether it changed direction I don't know. It was just one of those things."

Mark Lofthouse's fine pass set up Paul Mulvey for the game's first goal, then Lofthouse himself beat Colorado's Bill McKenzie from a sharp angle to create a 2-1 lead.

Colorado tied it early in the third period as Doug Berry stole the puck from Rick Green in front of the Colorado net and set up Don Saleski.

"I was encouraged that the guys didn't let down after that one," Green said. "We've had a tendency to let down in the third period and lose. At least this time we got a point."

Only a nut would have braved the weather to watch this one and the Rockies' fans qualified for that classification by dumping beer on the Capitals' bench and shouting epithets at the players of both teams.

"They're crazy," Green said. "They were throwing beer over the top of the glass and the language was terrible. Even the women were swearing at us. You have to be careful that fans like that don't destroy your concentration."