The Hartford Whalers blitzed the Caps, 6-1, behind a hat trick by Pat Verbeek, while chasing Washington's starting goalie, Rick Tabaracci, to the bench in the second period.
By then, the game was out of hand, with the Whalers ahead 5-0 and the smallest crowd of the season at USAir Arena, 8,871, voicing its unhappiness.
"I think there are success habits you have to develop at some point," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "You've got to play hard, play with intensity and you've got to respect your opponent, and we showed absolutely none of the above tonight . . . and they beat us real bad in all areas."
Washington, which seemed to have rediscovered its offensive touch at Ottawa on Saturday in a 6-1 victory, did not score in this one until Mike Ridley connected on a slap shot with 4:39 left.
It was a big effort from Ridley, who was boarded hard as time ran out in the second period. He left the rink holding his right arm. Post-game X-rays were negative, indicating only a bruised upper arm.
The outcome here was certainly a shock to the Capitals, who were looking forward to a scoring feast and inching back toward .500. Hartford had given up 99 goals coming into last night's game, sixth-worst in the league.
The Capitals' pre-game smiles in the locker room vanished almost as soon as Washington skated onto the ice. Hartford matched its highest offensive production of the season and nearly recorded its second shutout in five games.
"I'm just real happy we got the win," said Hartford goalie Sean Burke, who was playing in his first game since Oct. 27 and only his third of the season. "A shutout would have been great. But I'll take one goal against and a win -- especially in this building. This is a tough building to win in."
The Whalers, who have won five of their past seven games, had lost 13 times in 22 games here before last night.
"I don't think we played well right from the beginning," said Tabaracci, who gave up five goals on 16 shots. "We made that team look like Stanley Cup champions. We didn't come out of our zone cleanly once in the third period."
By the time this game reached the third period, Don Beaupre was minding the net. And Beaupre, who came into the game with 7:09 gone in the second period and made eight saves on nine shots, wasn't any more pleased than Tabaracci.
"We didn't work hard enough to win anything," Beaupre said after giving up Hartford's sixth goal, a power-play number that completed Verbeek's hat trick. "It's very tough. When you're not scoring goals, you've got to play tight in your end and we didn't do it in this game. We just didn't play at the level it takes to win in the NHL."
NOTES: Washington RW Alan May is one week away from testing his broken left hand, and RW Peter Bondra is out at least two more. . . . The Caps won't be home again until Dec. 17, when Ottawa comes to town.