"We knew it had to end sometime, but we hoped not this soon," Mike Gartner said last night after the Philadelphia Flyers had broken the Capitals' 14-game unbeaten streak, 6-3, before Capital Centre's biggest hockey crowd of the season.

The result broke a second-place tie between the Flyers and Capitals in the Patrick Division, dropping Washington two points behind Philadelphia and four behind the New York Islanders, who won at Hartford (NHL roundup, Page C7).

Washington last lost at home on Nov. 5, a 4-3 game with St. Louis. The Capitals had gone undefeated since Nov. 23, when the Flames took them, 6-3, in Calgary.

"Maybe we weren't quite up for this one," Gartner said. It was an odd observation, what with attendance announced at 18,130, a sellout.

And the Capitals didn't give up the streak until gamely crawling out of a 3-0 hole after the first period to forge a 3-3 tie going into the third.

But the home team's play at the outset indicated there might have been something to Gartner's remark.

With the Capitals looking like the ghost of seasons past, disorganized and unable to stop the visitors' attack, the Flyers took a two-goal lead before the action was seven minutes old. Mark Howe scored on a power play at 4:42, and Brian Propp followed with a short-handed score less than two minutes later. Propp made another goal before the period ended, giving Philadelphia a three-goal lead.

Washington shook off some of its lethargy midway through the second period, when Gartner connected on a power play, set up by Greg Theberge and Milan Novy. From behind the net, Novy fed the puck to Gartner and watched it bounce into the netting at 12:02.

Doug Jarvis took a short pass from Gaetan Duchesne for a short-handed goal at 14:25, and Craig Laughlin created a 3-3 tie just over two minutes later, tucking the puck into a corner of the net after Ted Bulley, from behind the cage, sent it onto his stick. Laughlin, who had recently worried about not generating enough offense, did an NFL-style end zone dance when he realized it had gone in.

But if the Capitals had hoped to carry the momentum into extending the steak, they were disappointed.

"The mood, going into the third period, was pretty positive, maybe overly so," Coach Bryan Murray said. "We felt good going in, and we gave one up early. That took away the steam or momentum."

The Philadelphia goal, Howe's second, came 26 seconds into the period, with Washington skating on a power play. Assisted by Bobby Clarke, Howe, parked in the crease, took the puck as it bounced by Theberge and slapped it by goaltender Al Jensen.

Brian Engblom, Washington defenseman who had been out with a cracked rib since Dec. 16, may have wished he'd stayed out.

"I put him in in the third period and he was struggling a little," Murray said. "We were trying to guard against giving one up and that's what we ended up doing."

Engblom, caught helplessly up ice, could only watch as Ron Flockhart snatched the puck before he could control it, and passed to Ray Allison, who scored at 6:57. Ilkka Sinisalo finished the Flyers' scoring when he took a quick pass from Darryl Sittler and flung it into the Capitals' net five minutes later.

Jensen lost his first decision in his last 10 and only second of 15 this season.

Asked about his goalie's play, Murray said in mock anger, "We lose one game, the guy's given up three goals in the last three road games. Sure, he'll have the odd night when he'll give up goals. We knew we'd lose a hockey game. We'll probably lose a few more before it's (the season) over. Anybody got any positive questions?"

But even Murray agreed there wasn't much in the positive play category for the Capitals this night. "A couple of guys played badly," he said. "I'm not pointing any fingers, but they were struggling."

Murray felt perhaps the two-day layoff had hurt the Capitals. Since beating the Islanders on Thursday night, they had not practiced until yesterday morning.

"We looked tired out there," he said. "And they played better than we did."

After the success on Long Island, Murray said, "We were riding a high going into Christmas Day. We were very sharp. Then everybody has off, eats a big turkey dinner, socializes a little bit. Maybe it hurt."

Gartner brushed that aside, saying, "They (Flyers) had off two days, too, so you can't blame it on that. Maybe we were a little rusty. Our passes were a bit sloppy. Maybe the ice was a bit soft, but you can't use that as an excuse since both teams had to skate on it."

Jensen, clearly disappointed, agreed that Howe's early third-period goal was "a big one."

"Maybe it did take something away," he said. "I thought the team played just as well as on other nights but . . . " He shrugged. "This is a tougher one, in front of the big crowd." Barely a handful of the sold-out seats stood empty.

Rod Langway was already looking ahead. "They came at us a different way," he said. "Two short-handed, two power-play goals. But in practice tomorrow, we'll work hard. I'm going to try not to let us get down. We've got a big game against Pittsburgh Tuesday, so it's a four-point turnaround."

The streak? "We lost one of 15," he said. "We can start another one."