Shades of Detroit and Toronto!

After squeezing out four straight one-goal victories, the Washington Capitals suffered a relapse of those forgettable performances and were humiliated by the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight, 8-1.

The Capitals were delayed in their arrival here today and ate lunch two hours later than is normal on a game day. It appeared that they still were digesting the meal when play began, as they moved like real penguins while the Pittsburgh variety was flying high.

"It's more than disappointing -- it's frustrating -- to play well against the top clubs and then come in here and play like that," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "Half our guys were giving half an effort out there."

Mike Bullard scored twice for the Penguins, who convincingly ended a 16-game winless streak at the Capitals' hands and defeated Washington here for the first time in 12 games dating back to Oct. 27, 1982.

Mario Lemieux, limited to one assist in three previous games against the Capitals this season, scored his 31st goal to create an early 1-1 tie, then set up Terry Ruskowski for the goal that put Pittsburgh ahead to stay. With three points tonight, Lemieux has at least one point in 13 straight games, an assist in his last 12.

The Civic Arena crowd of 10,189 enjoyed the proceedings throughout, but the biggest cheer came for Doug Shedden's third-period goal that made it 7-1. That assured everyone in attendance of a free bowl of chili at a fast-food restaurant, something the folks had smelled a period earlier, when they began occasional chants of, "Chili."

The goaltending victim of Washington's highest yield of the season was Pete Peeters, who faced 38 shots and also endured the taunts of fans who noted each routine stop.

Afterward, Peeters offered a public apology for his play to the fans who watched the game on television in Washington, but team captain Rod Langway insisted that the rest of the team ought to apologize to Peeters.

"Pete made some great stops in the first period and we're still down, 4-1," Murray said. "There may have been a couple of soft ones later, but you can hardly blame the goaltending on a night like this."

Gilles Meloche was beaten on the Capitals' first shot, by Gaetan Duchesne, and then was able to lean forward and enjoy his 20th career victory over Washington, a feat previously achieved only by the Islanders' Billy Smith. Meloche faced only 19 shots as the Capitals matched their lowest total of the season.

Adding to the Capitals' distress was Philadelphia's 4-0 victory at Buffalo, which dropped Washington eight points behind the Patrick Division leader.

For five minutes, it appeared as if this might be another blowout by the Capitals, in the tradition of Washington-Pittsburgh games of recent vintage. That notion quickly soured, however.

Duchesne scored on the Capitals' first shot, after Bob Gould kicked the puck away from the Penguins' Jim Johnson along the boards behind the Pittsburgh net.

On the same shift, Duchesne took a Larry Murphy setup and fired a shot off a post. Moments later, Mike Gartner picked off a pass by Pittsburgh's Moe Mantha and fed Bengt Gustafsson, who was foiled by Meloche.

That was the Capitals' high-water mark. Shedden tested Peeters for the first time at 5:45 and a mere 35 seconds later the score was tied. Lemieux centered the puck from behind the goal line at the left of the Washington net and it struck Murphy's stick, then popped off Peeters' hip and into the net.

Ruskowski was camped in front when Lemieux skated unchallenged behind the Washington net and finally sent the puck out for the eventual game winner.

Bullard walked past Kevin Hatcher and fired the puck over Peeters' left shoulder on a power play to make it 3-1, then Dan Frawley's pass from behind the net was converted by Craig Simpson 28 seconds later.

The four goals highlighted a Penguins blitz in which they outshot Washington by 8-1 over a nine-minute stretch.

The Capitals did not regroup during the intermission. After Craig Laughlin hit a post at the start of the second period, Pittsburgh outshot Washington by 10-1 over the first 10 minutes of the second period and increased its lead on goals by Bullard and Willy Lindstrom.