The Washington Capitals were foundering last night, the disappointing crowd of 7,966 was raining boos on the Capital Centre ice and Coach Danny Belisle confessed that "the way it was going, I might have settled for a tie."

Suddenly, in the space of 3 minutes 6 seconds, the Capitals turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead and went on to win a vital Norris Division contest from the Los Angeles Kings, 5-3.

Goalie Gary Inness, as usual, kept the Capitals within striking distance while they struggled. Then Robert Picard, Greg Polis and Dennis Maruk kept the red light blinking and the Capitals' playoff hopes winking.

Washington trailed, 2-1, early in the third period and a power play was just ending, to boisterous boos, when Picard took a long shot from the left-wing boards.

Guy Charron, at the right of the crease, wound up to try to push it home, but instead his swing became a raised stick of delight as the puck struck the skate of defenseman Darryl Edestrand and skipped past goalie Mario Lessard.It was Picard's second goal of the night and 15th of the season.

As quickly as Picard tied it, Polis untied it. Only 73 seconds later Polis skated out from the boards behind the Los Angeles net, turned and fired a drive past Lessard on the short side. It was the sixth goal in six games for Polis, playing despite a charley horse in his left thigh.

"Bobby (Sirois) did the spadework," Polis said. "He charged into the corner with one of their guys and the puck was just laying there. I skated out and took a quick wrist shot and beat him. Just before that, I tried the same thing and he (Lessard) poke checked me, so this time I went a little wider."

Polis admitted that his thigh hurt and said he "tried to favor it and I kept screwing up out there. If it hadn't been for (trainer) Gump (Embro) working on me last night, I probably couldn't have played at all."

Less than two minutes after the gutty Polis put Washington ahead, Maruk made it 4-2. The Capitals' leading scorer collected his 17th goal on a drive from the right-wing circle, with Tom Rowe screening Lessard.

A cross-checking penalty on Maruk gave Los Angeles the opportunity to reverse the momentum. Five seconds after Maruk's sentence expired, the Kings' Marcel Dionne faked Sirois to the ice and fed a wide open Randy Manery in the right-wing circle. Manery's blast sailed jist under the crossbar and it was 4-3 with more than nine minutes left.

So Inness, who made the big saves early, was called on to make the big saves late. Although playing his fourth game in five nights, he responded.

With 6 1/2 minutes left Dionne, a 39-goal scorer, swept past defenseman Yvon Labre and fired a backhander. Inness stopped it. With three minutes remaining Charlie Simmer fired a wicked drive off a faceoff in the Washington end. Inness stopped it. With Lessard pulled for a sixth skater and 50 seconds to play, Tom Williams tested Inness off a faceoff in the Capitals' ice. Inness stopped it.

Finally Ryan Walter ended the suspense with an empty-net goal and the Capitals were just six points behind Pittsburgh, seven back of Los Angeles in the battle for second spot behind Montreal in the Norris Division.

"I didn't feel that sharp," said Inness, who made 25 saves, 12 in the final period. "It took me and all of us a while to get rolling. We made up our minds between the second and third periods to grind it out, nothing fancy, just play our game.

"I am tired and I'm looking forward to a couple of days off. Playing back to back and traveling in the morning can be hectic. But everybody else has to do it, too."

The Capitals started at half speed and Clarkson graduate Dave Taylor scored the first of his two goals for the Kings before the first minute had expired. It could have been 3-0 in the first 10 minutes, but Inness made a remarkable stop on Butch Goring, set up in front by Mike Murphy, and then blocked a shot by Goring, who intercepted an erratic Picard pass in the slot.

Picard tied it on a power play after Edestrand was caught holding Walter. Lessard failed to deflect Rowe's centering pass from the corner and Picard was able to flip a backhander over the falling goalie.

Taylor netted his 29th goal in the second period, beating Inness on a breakaway after picking up Goring's headman pass at the red line.

Inness stopped Simmer alone in front on a Taylor setup and foiled both a Dionne shot and a Taylor rebound before his teammates took over their share of the load.