A smashed goalie stick rested in a corner of the Washington Capitals' dressing room last night, symbolic of the team's implosion. The Capitals--a team that was playing magical hockey at home--had blown a third-period lead and suffered a 5-4 loss to the New York Rangers at MCI Center, their most crushing defeat of the season.

A game they led by 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 was over in an instant--when Mike Knuble raced down the wing and threw the puck in the net off Tim Taylor 1 minute 4 seconds into overtime as defenseman Sergei Gonchar tried to tie him up.

The tying goal was just as painful. Center Petr Nedved tapped a rebound over the line with 19 seconds left in regulation, earning center Andrei Nikolishin a scowl from the coaches. The Capitals decided to play run-and-gun hockey with New York as the Rangers--who entered with a $60 million payroll and little to show for it--tried desperately to crawl back into the game in the second period. The Capitals paid dearly for it.

"We should have blown them right out of the building," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "We got greedy and it blew up in our face."

The Capitals (5-8-2, 13 points) seemed on the verge of pulling within one game of .500 and winning their fourth straight at home, where they had owned the third period. And, as has been the case lately, they were on the losing end of several questionable calls.

Washington entered the game with 50 power-play opportunities and 64 power plays faced--the third-worst ratio in the league. Last night the Rangers spent eight minutes on the power play; the Capitals not a single second. New York's power-play futility now stands at 0-36; Washington has killed 37 straight power plays.

Players did not complain about the officiating, blaming themselves, but got little help. The Capitals were leading 3-2 in the second period and dominating play, yet failed to convert on the numerous turnovers by the Rangers' porous defense. Three players almost scored on a scramble in front and center Adam Oates was yanked down--no call.

Rookie Mike York, who leads the Rangers with seven goals, capped a deflating rush at the other end, tying the score with 1:10 left in the period. Four minutes earlier, York had scored his first of the night, a puck goalie Olaf Kolzig inadvertently knocked over the line.

Calle Johansson appeared to erase that by scoring on a pretty wrist shot from the high slot about seven minutes into the third period, but another letdown was looming.

Washington was all over the Rangers in the third period, responding well to Wilson's new lines--Jan Bulis, Glen Metropolit and James Black got one shift in the third period, while Ulf Dahlen and Jeff Halpern joined the top two offensive units. Again, they mounted several chances to put away the game (defenseman Brendan Witt hit a post), but could not pull away.

"I thought we had a better overall game," Peter Bondra said. "Bad luck, I guess. We make a couple of mistakes and we let them back in the game. Definitely, we should have won this game."

Washington opened the game with a marked intensity and the line of Joe Sacco, Chris Simon and Nikolishin turned a dominating physical shift into a 1-0 lead, with Ken Klee finishing the play for his first goal of the season less than three minutes in. Nedved tied it about three minutes later on a nasty wrist shot, then it was all Washington.

Richard Zednik (one goal on 38 shots) forced a penalty shot, but goalie Mike Richter came way out to the face-off circles to challenge--cutting down the shooting angle and forcing a quick decision. Zednik shot between the goalie's legs, but Richter made a glove save.

Zednik remained in a funk; Oates broke out of his. He completed a breakaway 4:50 into the second period, making it 2-1, nabbing his first goal of the season (six players in last night's lineup are goal-less). Sacco, an unsung hero, charged hard to the net and stuffed in Johansson's rebound with seven minutes left in the period, providing the two-goal cushion.

It looked great at the time, but it wasn't enough. Too many chances went unconverted. Too many players pursued offense when strong defense was in order.

"We had a couple of lapses on our part," Simon said. "And it seems every time we have a letdown, the other team capitalizes on it. That's the difference in the game. When we start to play a full 60 minutes, we'll get the result we deserve. Until we do that we're not going to, and we proved it tonight."

CAPTION: With time running out in third period, Rangers' Petr Nedved sees a rebound on the end of his stick and an open net in front of him, with Caps' Dmitri Mironov and goalie Olaf Kolzig out of position.

CAPTION: Rangers rookie Mike York scores the first of his two goals, with an inadvertent assist from Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig.