What started out as a rout in the making became a rude awakening for the Washington Capitals, who saw a 3-0 advantage turn into a 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks tonight.

The loss ended a six-game unbeaten streak for the Capitals, who go back into action Tuesday at Calgary.

"This will have to be a character builder, I guess," said General Manager David Poile. "Based on how well we'd been playing, I thought we could've held it (the lead)."

Washington skated out against a sluggish group of Canucks in the first period, with a power-play goal by Brian Engblom, followed less than a minute later by Bob Gould's score on a 50-footer. Bengt Gustafsson, with an unassisted goal off a steal from Ron Delorme at 16:40, swelled the Capitals' edge against rookie goalie Ken Ellacott, starting for the second time in place of injured Richard Brodeur.

But from then on, it was all Vancouver, pouring on its frustrations from the first period. Stan Smyl got the first Vancouver goal, as well as the empty-net one that ended the game. In between, Dave Williams and Moe Lemay scored and Darcy Rota was officially awarded the game-winning goal that bounced off Capital Glen Currie's stick, when Currie reacted to a cross-ice pass in front of his own net. His mistake gave Vancouver a 4-3 edge late in the third, and ended whatever momentum Washington was trying to generate.

Asked about a possible turning point, Washington Coach Bryan Murray pointed to a second-period scuffle between Williams and Capitals goalie Pat Riggin. "He (Williams) went from the faceoff right at Riggin," he said. "I don't know if I'm making too much of it, but it definitely had an effect."

Murray said his club made mistakes on the second Vancouver goal, when Doug Halward moved in close to Riggin's cage almost halfway through the third period.

"(Greg) Theberge left (his spot) to help Rod (Langway), and it was simple; their man came down in the slot and scored," Murray said.

Poile said that goal "opened the floodgates, and we didn't have the composure to stop it."

Once opened, the floodgates remained open. Washington was not capable of turning aside the suddenly awake Canucks. In addition, Timo Blomqvist, who went down on a hard check by Smyl, suffered badly bruised ribs that will keep him out of action for the remaining two games of the western road trip.

Maybe Williams' feistiness got to his teammates and, 57 seconds later, Smyl took the puck from Thomas Gradin, parked himself out in front of Riggin and aimed it upward. Engblom fell like a tackle to block the play, but it was too late, and the puck flipped over Riggin's shoulder at 9:58.

Kevin McCarthy tried to up Vancouver's production two minutes later, shooting at the side of the net. Riggin had come out and left the cage almost wide open, but Langway, right on the puck's trail, scooped it up neatly and cleared it out of Canucks' scoring territory.

Blomqvist was trying to do some clearing in the corner moments later when he was clotheslined into the boards by Smyl. The crunching body check sent Blomqvist thudding to the ice, but, although shaken, he went to the dressing room unassisted.

With nearly seven minutes left in the period, Vancouver seemed to get its second goal. Curt Fraser took at hard shot directly at the Washington net, and the puck appeared to bang off the post, touch the net and fly out. Riggin gloved it quickly, and no goal was allowed.

The Capitals could have gotten a power play going on Garth Butcher's tripping penalty at 14:39, but before Washington could do more than move out of its own end, Theberge took a slashing penalty, erasing the advantage.