The Washington Capitals looked like a vintage break-even hockey team last night at Capital Centre, as they followed one of their best performances of the season with one of their worst. Their blunders finally overtook their resolve with 5 1/2 minutes to play, and a deflatingly sloppy 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens left them with a .500 record and plenty of could-haves to ponder.

A four-wins-in-five-games run of prosperity and a somewhat unlikely string of successes against the Canadiens came to an end, and the Capitals lost a chance to move up to third place in the Patrick Division. Worst of all, the whole evening of nightmares came in a contest for which the Canadiens admittedly were not particularly primed -- and in which they were missing stalwart goaltender Patrick Roy, who has the flu.

"It was a lackluster effort," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said. "I don't know why it happened. We didn't have the intensity we should've had coming off a big victory at New York" -- Wednesday's 6-3 win over the Patrick Division-leading Rangers.

Montreal got the game-winning goal on the last of several glaring defensive gaffes by the Capitals, as Rod Langway and Mikhail Tatarinov let Montreal center Andrew Cassels slip behind them with the game in the balance. Cassels took Denis Savard's lead pass and outmaneuvered Washington goalie Don Beaupre -- making his first appearance in a month after being shelved with a groin muscle pull -- to put Montreal ahead to stay with 5:33 left.

That made for a frustrating evening all around for the Capitals, who twice blew one-goal leads and saw their record fall to 14-14-0. Beaupre couldn't be faulted for Washington's failures, as the Capitals left him defenseless on three of the four goals; Montreal's other score came on a power play.

"I thought Beaupre played well," Murray said. "When you're giving up breakaways, you put a lot of pressure on your goaltender to make the big save time after time. We just have to play better in front of him."

The Capitals had been 13-5-4 in their previous 22 games against Montreal, including 12-2-4 over their prior 18 at Capital Centre. But they mostly were bottled up last night at center ice by the Canadiens' passive, patient prodding, and Montreal rookie goaltender Jean-Claude Bergeron -- in just his fourth NHL appearance -- faced only spurts of disjointed Capitals pressure.

"You don't feel like you really earned the win in a game like this," Savard said, "but that doesn't mean you won't take it. We were going to let them make the mistakes, and they made a lot of them."

The Capitals struck first, converting just nine seconds after Montreal's Donald Dufresne was whistled for holding at the 4:32 mark of the first period. Michal Pivonka found an unguarded Kevin Hatcher at the doorstep with a crisp cross-ice pass from the right wing, and Hatcher hammered the puck home to give the Capitals -- with the NHL's top-rated power play beginning the night -- an extra-man goal for the 12th time in their last 13 games.

Beaupre made several good stops through the early going, but Washington's first defensive miscue allowed the Canadiens (13-11-3) to tie at 1. Defenseman Calle Johansson's giveaway just inside the Capitals' blueline left Beaupre to face a two-on-none situation, and Tom Chorske's low drive beat the sliding goalie to the stick side to even matters at the 15:54 mark.

Washington answered 2:05 later, though, as John Druce drew three Canadiens with a rush down the right side and found Dale Hunter cutting down the middle for a 2-1 Washington advantage.

Yet once again, the Capitals could not live with such prosperity, as more of their generosity led to another Canadiens' goal. This time, it was Druce putting a pass onto the stick of Montreal's Stephan Lebeau, who beat Beaupre on a breakaway for his 10th goal to knot the game once more, 2:26 into the second period.

With Washington's Alan May off for planting an elbow in the face of Guy Carbonneau, the Canadiens forged their first lead on Mark Pederson's fortunate tipin at 10:29. Point man Eric Desjardins began the play by skating in on the right side, and his wrist shot through traffic deflected off Pederson's stick and into the net as he wrestled for position in front.

Bergeron allowed a cheap goal as the Capitals drew even 53 seconds into the final period. Pivonka skated in on the right wing, and while being tied up near the blueline sent a weak slap shot toward the net, seemingly just trying to put the puck on goal.

But it slipped between Bergeron and the near post, and the stage was set for a furious -- and for the Capitals, infuriating -- finish.