Has the Washington Capitals' luck been so bad for so long that they don't know how to grab good fortune when it wants to hug them?

Just when the path to the Stanley Cup seems to be parting wide for them like some corny movie script, the Capitals suddenly have two left skates.

Sure, the division champion Philadelphia Flyers and Quebec Nordiques are both already dead and gone -- upset by other clubs willing to do the Capitals' dirty work. And the Edmonton Oilers are doing their best so far to lose to the Calgary Flames.

Just when everybody on earth is trying to help the Capitals -- the team nobody's ever helped -- the Washingtonians have forgotten how to help themselves.

The Capitals' locker room would have made a wake seem like a disco Wednesday night. Talk about blowing a big game. This night in Madison Square Garden, the Capitals led, 3-1, in the first period. They led, 5-3, in the last period. And they led, 5-4, with less than three minutes to play.

And they lost, 6-5, to the New York Rangers in overtime.

What might have been a very clean and easy series suddenly has become a very messy two-games-apiece affair. So what if the Rangers have lost more than they've won this season? So what if the Capitals have won more than twice as often as they've lost? When you get to the playoffs and start winning the laughers but losing the crucial squeakers, it's bad on the nervous system.

As if squandering a late lead -- a sin the Capitals pride themselves on never committing -- was not bad enough, the memory of Wednesday evening's last goal will make for some lovely dreams. Greg Smith scored it on an assist from Scott Stevens.

Unfortunately, both Smith and Stevens play for the Capitals.

The scorebook will say Bob Brooke of the Rangers got that final unassisted goal. In the NHL, they give you an assist if you look at the puck before a teammate scores. But you can't give an assist when the other team does the passing. Stevens, the Capitals' star defenseman, never saw Brooke and put the puck right on his stick.

Brooke, all set up in the slot, couldn't even put the puck in the net for himself. Missed the whole goal mouth. Another Capital, defenseman Smith, had to finish the job. With his back (quite properly) to the play, Smith watched the puck deflect off his skate and light up the night in red.

Was Brooke's shot on goal?

"Not close," said goalie Pete Peeters.

Beg pardon.

"Not close."

Yes, yes, heard you that time.

"It's good knowing we can put six pucks by Peeters," said Pierre Larouche.

The Rangers might have gotten some help from their psych-'em crowd, which took up an eerie ghostly chant of "Peeeeeters, Peeeeeters," to unnerve the goalie.

The biggest help the Rangers got, however, was from the otherwise stellar Stevens.

"The side was open," said Stevens, who, with the puck on his stick behind the Capitals' net, saw Mike Gartner making a breakaway move. "Then their guy stepped in. That's all I remember."

"Their guy" was Brooke. The rest was mystery.

"We let them back in it. We should have had it won in regulation," said Capitals Coach Bryan Murray. " Willie Huber walks down the slot and scores to make it 5-4 . Then, we give away the puck behind our net to set up another goal . But they just outplayed us in overtime. They battled and battled. I don't know what we were thinking about in overtime.

"Sometimes it gets easy and you let it slide."

After the first period tonight, the Capitals had outscored the Rangers by 17-5 over a seven-period span. Just like 50-23-7 teams are supposed to thump 36-38-6 outfits, even ones with a hot goalie like John Vanbiesbrouck.

"You gotta respect 'em. They never die," said Capital Rod Langway, standing in front of a blackboard in the Capitals locker room on which was scrawled the phrase, "Death is your only friend."

The Rangers are certainly of the opinion that they deserve great credit for their second overtime Houdini.

"So far in this series, I don't think it was a case so much of the Capitals dominating as it was more that the New York Rangers were willing dance partners," said Rangers Coach Ted Sator, who excused his assistant coaches after the first period and gave his troops an old-fashioned it's-now-or-never tongue-lashing. "The way things are going, maybe it's appropriate that there's a roller-coaster outside our practice arena."

Some Capitals, however, thought you could overdo the respect bit. "We lost. That's what really gets us. If they'd won, it wouldn't be so bad," said Bob Carpenter. "Just too many mental errors."

"When we've played well, we've won big 8-1, 6-3 ," said Gartner. "And when we've played so-so, we've still had a chance and lost twice in overtime. Doesn't that mean that if we just play our game we're in good shape?"

"Friday will be a different game back in our barn," vowed Gaetan Duchesne in perfect hockeyspeak.

The Capitals are fully aware of how lucky they've been to avoid the 110-point Flyers and the Nordiques, who give them fits. And they will be passionately interested when Calgary tries to build a three-games-to-one lead over Edmonton Thursday night in Calgary. They know they could conceivably win the Stanley Cup without playing any of the best regular season clubs.

"Maybe that's a little bit of a problem," said Gartner. "We could be looking too far ahead. We could be thinking too much about some other series and not our own. If you want to be a winner, you have to work for it.

"There's no easy road to the Stanley Cup."

With three minutes to play in the third period this evening, it looked like, for the Capitals, there might be.

But not anymore.