ST. LOUIS, DEC. 20 -- Ties require perspective.

The Washington Capitals had lost three straight, so a 3-3 tie tonight with the St. Louis Blues at The Arena was not so bad. Then again, considering the Capitals had a two-goal lead, maybe it was.

This was the first meeting between the Capitals and Blues since their four-player swap in July and the Capitals' first tie this season. Scott Stevens signed with the Blues as a $5.1 million free agent and Geoff Courtnall asked to be traded after the summer's troubles in Georgetown. For him, the Capitals got Peter Zezel (still injured) and Mike Lalor.

The Capitals scored early and were aggressive with their checks. Goals by Kevin Hatcher, Mike Ridley and Lalor gave them a 3-1 edge after two periods.

"Coming back, you always want to prove yourself and have a good game," said Lalor, who did not score a goal last season for the Blues or in his first 36 games as a Capital.

But the Washington lead evaporated in the third period with the NHL's top goal scorer, Brett Hull, doing the damage. It wasn't a blazing slap shot or a dash up the boards. Just two deflected shots from the point, but they count all the same. The first came with just 3:16 gone and the other with 13:40 left in regulation.

The Capitals played without a couple of regulars.

Mikhail Tatarinov took a check on the left knee in the third period against Chicago, though he returned to the game a few minutes later. He tried skating in this evening's pregame warm-up, but was noticeably favoring the leg and was scratched from the lineup. Chris Felix, who was called up from Baltimore today and met the team here, took Tatarinov's spot in the lineup.

Dave Tippett's shoulder problems are not yet over. Tippett missed six games with a slightly separated shoulder, but has played the last three. However, it wasn't completely better and he banged it again against Chicago.

"My game is along the boards," said Tippett, who will rest the shoulder for several days in hopes it improves. "If I'm not at full strength, I'm not doing much good."

Capitals Coach Terry Murray said tonight that Steve Leach was not doing enough that was good, so he was scratched.

"Steve Leach has got to give more," Murray said. "We only get it once in a while."

Letting Leach watch was only part of Murray's attempt to find a winning mix. Kelly Miller was moved from Michal Pivonka's line to that of Mike Ridley and Dino Ciccarelli. Dimitri Khristich in his second NHL game, played with Dale Hunter and John Druce. Bob Joyce was put Pivonka's line with Peter Bondra and Murray.

"It's his opportunity," Murray said of Joyce. "He's got one goal in 10 games and he has to get points on the scoreboard."

That line was on the ice when the Capitals got the only goal of the first period, though it was a two-man effort. Pivonka won a faceoff from Bob Bassen and Hatcher fired a low slap shot through traffic and by a screened Joseph for his 13th goal of the season and a 1-0 lead with just 2:08 gone in the game.

Oddly, once the Capitals had that 1-0 lead, the Blues controlled the rest of the first period, outshooting ther Capitals 12-8. The NHL's top goal-scorer Brett Hull had already walked across the front of the goal and missed wide, before Hatcher scored. Afterward, Liut stopped Hull in the slot. Just after a Capitals power play, Liut stopped Courtnall and Jeff Brown. But none got through and the Capitals took that lead to the locker room.

The Blues hadn't played since Sunday and their sluggishness cost them early in the second. Miller carried around Bob Dirk, and though Joseph made that stop, he couldn't prevent Ridley from knocking in the rebound for his 11th goal and 2-0 lead with just 33 seconds elapsed.

Now awake, the Blues cut it to 2-1 just 22 seconds later. Glen Featherstone circled at the point and his shot was re-routed by Momesso standing right at the edge of the crease.

The Capitals tried to be more aggressive finishing their checks tonight. After Nick Kypreos finished one on Jeff Brown, Stevens pushed Kypreos and the two duked it out for moment or two.

Within about two minutes, two plays occurred that certified this evening as bizarre. Joyce sent the fleeted-footed Bondra in for a clear breakaway, but Joseph made a great glove save. Then on the Capitals' next shot, Lalor worked his scoring magic, such as it is, with the puck taking an indirect route off a Blues' stick.

The Capitals had a bundle of other chances -- Druce was robbed twice by Joseph -- but they still had that 3-1 lead at the start of the third period.