For the first time this season, the Washington Capitals have put two defeats back to back. Following Sunday's disaster in Boston with a mediocre performance on home ice, the Capitals were outclassed by the Vancouver Canucks last night, 4-2.

It could have been 10-2, except that Mike Palmateer was brilliant in the Washington net, blocking 39 shots by Vancouver and a couple aimed in his direction by teammates.

It could have been 4-4, because with five minutes left and each team skating two men short, Darren Veitch rifled a shot off the crossbar and Mike Gartner whistled another off a post.

"If they go inside instead of outside, it's a tie game," said Gartner, whose 16th goal gave the Capitals a short-lived 2-2 tie at the 16-second mark of the second period.

Tiger Williams' second goal of the game shattered that tie less than five minutes later and Darcy Rota concluded the scoring with 9:51 left in the game.

Williams is better known here for his numerous brawls, with a battle against Bill Riley earning him one of the fastest ejections in NHL history: eight seconds after the first puck was dropped. But he scored 30 goals last season and he should do even better this time.

"I want to get 1,000 goals," Williams said. "I've got 850 in practice. I'm one of the highest paid guys in the league and if I don't play well, they'll send me to the minors."

Asked if he was the catalyst of the Canucks, Williams replied, "What's that, some kind of animal?"

Obviously there was a light mood in the Vancouver dressing room. The Canucks had a 43-23 edge in shots and, those two iron clangers aside, they did not have much to worry about in this contest. They were all over the Capitals' struggling defense from the beginning, sending three forecheckers into the Washington zone and counting on swift defensemen to cover up any deficiencies.

"The last two games we have faced two of the best physical, forechecking teams in the league," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "Vancouver gambled offensively, putting three guys on top of a defense that's hurting. We had to concentrate on a defensive effort and it took away from our usual aggressive forechecking game.

"We just have to make sure the guys through this injury period don't get down on themselves and think these teams are beating them because they're actually better. I don't even like to talk about the injuries, because it's not fair to the guys who are out there, but it's also obvious that we do have problems on defense."

Rick Green is still nursing that sprained right wrist and there is hope he can play Friday, when Pittsburgh comes to Capital Centre. But that does not offer a lot of hope tonight, when the weary Capitals must travel to New York for their fourth game in five nights against a revived Ranger team that has won three straight (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30). The only good news there is that winger Bengt Gustafsson, who dislocated a shoulder Saturday, probably will be available for power plays and penalty killing.

"I can't stand this any more," Rick Green said last night. "I'm almost sick, sitting up there watching it."

There were some sick guys out on the ice, too, playing their hearts out in vain. Pat Ribble tried, his sprained thumb enveloped by a cast, but he obviously had little control of his stick. Alan Hangsleben kept on pounding opposing forwards, even taking on Stan Smyl in a fight, despite battered knuckles from combat Sunday in Boston.

Palmateer was playing with a bruised breastbone, but it would have been hard to believe anything was hampering him. He dove in every direction to block shots, he knocked the puck off the sticks of breakaway Canucks, he cleared the zone with sharp passes and he even went behind his net to check Jerry Butler into the boards.

Aside from Palmateer, there were few bright moments for the 8,439 faithful at Capital Centre. Ryan Walter assisted on Gartner's goal to run his club record of an assist per game to eight. And Wes Jarvis collected the Capitals' fourth short-handed score of the season on a most dramatic giveaway. c

Vancouver's Rick Lanz fell at his blue line as he attempted to carry the puck out of the Vancouver zone. The puck skidded back toward the Canucks' goal and net-minder Gary Bromley came out, to be met by Washington's Jean Pronovost at the hashmarks between the faceoff circles.

The deflected puck lay there as Bromley fell and Pronovost skated by. Jarvis was first to reach it and directed a slow, accurate backhander into the empty net.

Aside from three fights, the only chance for the home folks to yell in the last 39 minutes occurred with Washington down, 3-2. Pronovost raced down the right wing, cut around defenseman Mario Marois and shot. The goal judge pressed his button, the light came on, but the puck had sailed inches wide. It was that kind of night.