LANDOVER -- If the 1991-92 season turns sour for the Washington Capitals, they will look back to last night as one of the games that led to their downfall.
Facing a New York Rangers team that had won six straight to close within one game of first place in the Patrick Division, the Capitals pulled one of the biggest fades in franchise history.
Washington scored six goals in the first period to take a five-goal lead, then watched the Rangers score seven straight goals on the way to an 8-6 victory and a tie atop the standings.
New York scored what proved to be the winning goal 12 minutes, 7 seconds into the third period, when Mike Gartner drilled a shot past Mike Liut after Capitals center Mike Ridley had lost the puck near center ice.
The goal by Gartner made the score 7-6, and New York added a little insult to the Capitals with 36 seconds left, when Sergei Nemchinov scored an open-net goal to account for the final margin.
Nemchinov was left open after Washington defenseman Al Iafrate skated past the puck, leaving it for Nemchinov.
That ended any hopes for a Washington recovery.
The New York rally made Michal Pivonka's first career hat trick (achieved in the first period) almost meaningless, and it also made the present Capitals' streak of killing 34 straight penalties seem insignificant.
Washington is suddenly a team starting to think a little about what has gone wrong since a 15-4 start.
"For this to happen," said Capitals coach Terry Murray, "something very bad had to go wrong for us. It just kept snowballing. It got worse and worse. We had giveaway after giveaway. We weren't in the game mentally after the first period. We have to regroup."
Murray said he had some thoughts about replacing Liut in the third period, when New York scored five goals.
"It crossed my mind," said Murray. "But he had come up big on a lot of other chances early in the game. This was a team loss. You can't pin it on any one player. We just had too many turnovers."
Iafrate said it was one of the more disappointing defeats in his career.
"As an athlete, you have time to sit around and think about what's going on with the team," said Iafrate. "And that's what is happening to me now. When a sport is your livelihood, you don't want something like this to happen."
Iafrate said the Rangers executed better than Washington and there was some lack of team unity in the second and third periods.
"We have to respect each other more than we did tonight," he said. "We can't be a bunch of individuals."
Ridley said the Capitals were guilty of thinking they had the game won in the second period, when they killed off a five-on-three power play to maintain a 6-3 lead going into the final period.
"We relaxed at that point and said we had it won," said Ridley. "We all felt things would be all right then."
Washington took only seven shots in the second and third periods.
John Vanbiesbrouck had replaced starting goaltender Mike Richter after he was burned for six first-period goals, including three on a five-minute Washington power play.
Rangers coach Roger Neilson said: "We didn't change anything after the first period [except goaltender]. We just kept playing, and right now we have a lot of confidence."
New York right wing Paul Broten, who had one goal last night, said the Ragners felt it was "a matter of time before things turned around."
"We were getting quality shots and playing good hockey and things usually work out for you," he said.