Coach Gary Green likes to say that his Capitals can skate with anyone in the third period. Not last night, as the Minnesota North Stars rallied with two goals to end Washington's seven-game unbeaten streak, 4-3.

The North Stars were so dominant in the final minutes that Green was never able to pull goalie Wayne Stephenson for a sixth skater. Probably just as well; Stephenson was forced to stop two breakaways down the stretch.

Stephenson was unable to handle the big shot, by Minnesota rookie Curt Giles with 3:40 remaining. Giles collected Mike Eaves' rebound at the left-wing boards and threaded the puck into the upper right corner from a nearly impossible angle.

"He hit the very corner and it dropped in," Stephenson said. "It came up so quick, there was nothing I could do. We had a little letdown and it cost us, but if we profit by our mistakes we'll be all right."

That may be easier said than done. The Capitals were scheduled to charter after the game to St. Louis, where they play the potent Blues tonight. Instead, the flight was delayed and they wound up spending the night in a motel in Hanover, Md.

For further aggravation, they were without winger Bob Sirois, who suffered bruised ribs in the first period. Although X-rays were negative, Sirois stayed home, along with sore-kneed Pat Ribble. Center Harvie Pocza was recalled from Hershey for tonight's game.

The Caps could not have picked a worse time for a breakdown, since last night's other matchups, Pittsburgh-Edmonton and Detroit-Vancouver, guaranteed they would lose ground to a couple of their rivals for that final playoff berth.

"We have to regain those two points in St. Louis," Green said. "This was our worst game in the last night. We can't afford to run out of intensity. We have no excuses. We didn't have it in the third period. We didn't have the legs.

"Minnesota is an excellent skating hockey club. They have big guys, with a long stride, and they're deceiving. We got caught up ice several times when the way the play started it didn't look like we'd be caught."

The end came as a shock to the crowd of 14,795, since the Capitals never trailed until Giles' goal. Twice it appeared that they were about to put the game beyond Minnesota's reach, but it never happened.

Ryan Walter and Rolf Edberg sent Washington into a 2-0 lead by the five-minute mark of the second period and then Robert Picard, with goalie Gilles Meloche beaten, struck a post.

Play moved to the other end and Minnesota's Tim Young, far and away the best player on the ice, cut past defenseman Paul MacKinnon and drilled a shot just under the crossbar. Instead of 3-0, it was 2-1.

It quickly became 2-2 as Kent-Erik Andersson, from the right-wing circle, hammered a shot through Stephenson's pads.

Washington moved back in front at 8:15 of the third period. Pierre Bouchard intercepted Eaves' feeble clearing pass and rifled a 50-footer past Meloche, screened by Paul Mulvey.

Once again the Capitals had a chance to apply the crusher as Glen Currie, from the left-wing circle, sent a sizzler toward the far corner. Meloche dove to his left and gloved it, one of many excellent saves that prompted Meloche later to say, "I think I have a lucky charm when I play in this building."

Young, who had 10 shots on goal, cut through the slot and was tripped by Picard, but as he fell he managed to shove the puck backward, play continuing during the delayed penalty. Rookie Tom McCarthy grabbed it and beat Stephenson with a backhander: 3-3.

Only 6:01 remained and Washington team and fans were probably willing to settle for the deadlock.Minnesota, fighting for eighth place and home -- ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, was not.

Into discard went Mike Gartner's eight-game goal-scoring streak and Green's suspenders.

Green wore the same suspenders, while coaching the Petersborough junior team, through a 17-game unbeaten streak. One day, hit by flu and barely able to go to the rink, he forgot them, and the Toronto Marlboroughs cut the string. He found them in a drawer two weeks ago, put them on and saw the Capitals set a team record by going unbeaten through seven games.

"They go back in the drawer," Green said last night.