CHICAGO, DEC. 19 -- There was a time when the Washington Capitals played good defense. They tended to deny entry at the blueline and, even if the puck got into the zone, it usually would be cleared with poise and precision.

It's hard to remember those days.

For the third game in a row, a defensive lapse cost the Capitals tonight. This time, it turned into a breakaway goal -- sound familiar? -- by Dirk Graham that gave the Chicago Blackhawks a 3-2 victory in front of 17,499 at Chicago Stadium.

Don Beaupre played a wonderful game in goal for the Capitals, who were in a 2-2 tie with a power play with 4:53 left in the third period. But Steve Larmer stole Calle Johansson's pass and sent Graham in on Beaupre for the Blackhawks' ninth shorthanded goal of the season.

Veterans Doug Wilson and Michel Goulet had the other goals for the Blackhawks, who gave goalie Ed Belfour his league-leading 22nd victory. Johansson and Kelly Miller had goals for the Capitals, who now have lost three in a row and four of their last five games.

The Capitals will leave here Thursday morning for St. Louis, where they will face the Blues at 8:35 at The Arena. This will be the first meeting between the teams since they swapped four players -- Scott Stevens and Geoff Courtnall going to the Blues and Mike Lalor and Peter Zezel going to the Capitals -- last July.

The Capitals' newest player, 21-year-old Soviet left wing Dimitri Khristich made his NHL debut and played a solid game, although without any points.

The Capitals came here after losing to the Rangers in New York and to the Whalers in Landover. In both games, there were particularly glaring defensive lapses. Against Hartford, it was a case of forecheckers lifting the puck from the Capitals. Against the Rangers, it was more of a situation of defensemen and others gambling too much in moves toward the other end of the ice, leaving goalie Mike Liut exposed to breakaways.

Chicago Stadium is one of the great buildings in American sport. Fans often drown out the national anthem, although here it somehow doesn't seem disrespectful.

"It's all right on top of you, and the Chicago players feed off that," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said before the game.

But the rink also is one of three smaller-than-regulation facilities in the NHL, which means the transition from offense to defense is quicker.

Evidence of that came quickly tonight. In the second minute of the game, the Capitals turned the puck over near the Chicago blueline. As he was turning to get back, Capitals defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov fell, giving Troy Murray a breakaway on Beaupre. But the goalie kicked back Murray's shot for the first of many excellent stops.

Before the game, Murray said: "Beaupre played very well in the overtime loss," referring to the Capitals' 3-2 defeat here Oct. 25. "If we get the same kind of performance tonight, we could come out of here with a win."

But the Blackhawks took the early lead. With Nick Kypreos in the penalty box, Beaupre made a couple of stops, but the Capitals couldn't clear the zone. The puck came to Wilson, who teed up a perfect slap shot that caught the far top corner of the net for a 1-0 lead with just 3:50 gone in the game.

Like the Blackhawks, the Capitals missed their first chance, also a good one. Khristich, who started the night on a line with Dino Ciccarelli and Mike Ridley, took a pass from Ciccarelli on a two-one-one. Belfour stopped the first shot and Khristich shot wide on the rebound.

But the Capitals tied the game at 1 with 6:18 left in the first period. Ridley fed Johansson from the corner and Johansson picked his corner, much as Wilson had.

Ciccarelli has been playing well since his return from a fractured thumb. He has five goals in five games, including one that was originally credited to Kevin Hatcher.

"He's got the knack around the net," Murray said of Ciccarelli.

But early in the second period, Ciccarelli lost the puck near his net. Steve Larmer fed Goulet with a cross-slot pass, and Goulet put it in the open side before Beaupre could recover for a 2-1 Chicago lead with 3:11 gone in the second period.

Michal Pivonka and Peter Bondra had cooled down in recent games after a torrid stretch. But they hooked up for the Capitals' second goal. Pivonka sent Bondra in alone on Belfour. Bondra waited for Belfour to go down. His shot was weak, but it trickled into the crease, where it bounced in off Miller. So Miller was credited with the goal, his eighth of the season, which tied the game at 2.