VANCOUVER, FEB. 16 -- The third period already was going badly when Washington Capitals Coach Terry Murray was hit in the head with a clearing pass by one of his own players.

Murray probably would have been happy to take one for the club, but his wound was wasted as the Capitals gave up four third-period goals to the Vancouver Canucks, who departed Pacific Coliseum tonight with a 4-2 victory.

"It was almost like we forgot how to play in the third period," Murray said, while holding a blood-spotted towel. He may need a stitch or two. "It's defensemen not reading the situation. It's a game we should never have let get away."

This was the second loss in less than 24 hours for the Capitals. They were pasted by the Calgary Flames, 8-2, Friday night and then took a charter flight here.

"No excuse," said Dino Ciccarelli, who had the game's first goal, which was also his team-high 19th of the season. "We got here in plenty of time.

"Al {Iafrate} and Hatchie {Kevin Hatcher} had good opportunities and we had plenty of chances to put it away. Two goals is not going to win a lot of hockey games."

The Capitals were whipped by Calgary, 9-4, in October, but then won five straight games for their longest winning streak of the season. The second game in that run and the last of the road trip was a 2-1 victory here.

But this time, the 13,646 on hand saw the Canucks overcome a 2-0 deficit with goals by Ronnie Stern and Gerald Diduck within 39 seconds early in the third period. Dan Quinn then got the game-winner with 8:07 remaining and Petr Nedved scored with 47 seconds left after goalie Don Beaupre was removed for an extra forward.

"We're a desperate team," said Quinn, whose Canucks won two of their previous 14 games and are still five points behind fourth-place Winnipeg in the Smythe Division. "We knew it {the third period} was their sixth period in two days. All of our goals were grinding goals."

The New Jersey Devils beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2, this afternoon. So the Capitals will be four points behind the fourth-place Devils when they try to end the two-game skid against the Smythe Division-leading Los Angeles Kings Monday afternoon in Inglewood, Calif.

The Capitals have to do two things. First, they need to convert more chances. Another goal might have put the Cunucks to rest. Second, they can't keep losing their men they're covering, and thus the puck, in their own end.

"We didn't play the system properly," said Iafrate, who, along with his relatively inexperienced defense partner, Ken Sabourin, was on the ice for the first three Vancouver goals. "All three goals were because of that. When the system breaks down it's because either somebody doesn't know what they're doing or in one-on-one situations the guy gets beat."

This game started fine for the Capitals. Mike Ridley, who has points in 10 straight games, made a nice pass to Ciccarelli, who beat goalie Kirk McLean for a 1-0 lead with 11:22 left in the first period.

Ridley pushed it to 2-0, taking Kelly Miller's drop pass and firing a shot past McLean with 10:09 left in the second period.

Only once before had the Canucks come back to win in the third period. Tonight, they tied it within a minute. Robert Kron fed Doug Lidster in the slot and he left a drop pass for Stern, who stepped outside of Lidster and beat Beaupre with 3:36 gone in the period. After the ensuing faceoff, the Capitals started chasing and caught nobody. Igor Larionov found Diduck open in front for a 2-2 tie with 4:15 gone.

Beaupre had little hope on Quinn's game-winner. He stopped a shot by Garry Valk, but the rebound kicked out high to Tom Kurvers, who then advanced toward the net. Beaupre moved out to cut down the angle, but Beaupre couldn't stop everybody. Nobody took Quinn, who re-routed Kurvers's diagonal pass for the goal with 8:07 left in regulation.

"We needed the win and we were up two goals," Beaupre said. "You've got to say we gave it to them in the third period."

Capitals Notes: Left wing Dimitri Khristich suffered a hip pointer in the second period and did not return to action. It's uncertain if he will be able to play in Monday's 4 p.m. game against the Kings. . . .

Defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov, who jammed his shoulder against the Flames, was able to play.