The Capitals saved their best effort for the closing minutes last night but waited just a bit too long and dropped a 5-4 decision to the Minnesota North Stars.

Trailing 5-2 with five minutes left and with many in the Capital Centre crowd of 7,708 headed out the exits, the Caps created a stir on goals by Paul Mulvey and Mike Kaszycki, the newcomer's second of the game.

With a minute remaining, Coach Gary Green called a timeout and pulled goalie Gary Inness for a sixth skater. Although the puck stayed on the Minnesota side of center ice for all but the last second, Washington did not manage a shot on goal.

Twice Minnesota's Glen Sharpley deflected drives by Robert Picard and another attempt by Ryan Walter was knocked out of harm's way by a defender before the Capital's 20th defeat in 20 games was assured.

In Green's first 11 games as Washington coach, the Capitals only once yielded more than four goals. This was the third straight time the opposition collected five and there must be concern both about sloppy play by the defense and inconsistent performance in the net.

The North Stars cashed in on their first two shots of the game and Washington never caught up, although twice pulling within one goal.

After two minutes of pressure by the Capitals, Tim Young deflected Gary Sargent's drive past Inness for a 1-0 Minnesota lead. Then Mike Fidler hit a post, beat Inness to the rebound and fired into an empty net with Washington defenders noticeably absent.

Kaszycki's first goal as a capital halved the margin early in the second period and the home side had frequent opportunities to tie. Minnesota goalie Gilles Meloche, caught out of his net on several occasions, was saved when Wes Jarvis, Mulvey and Walter all shot the puck into his pads.

The North Stars appeared to apply a crusher in the first minute of the final period, as Steve Payne escaped a two-Capital sandwich to send a shot just under the crossbar. Payne became the sixth man in the NFL to reach 20 goals this season and he did it in his 26th game. A year ago, he needed 24 games to score his first.

Jarvis converted a long pass from Tom Rowe to pull the Capitals within 3-2 with 14:20 left to play, then the North Stars lengthened the gap on goals by Tom Younghans and Young.

Younghans beat defender Pete Scamurra to the puck behind the Washington net and Inness, unsure which way Younghans was coming out, made a slight move to his left. That opened just enough of a gap at the right post for Younghans to play a billiard shot off Inness' skate.

Only 5:36 remained when Young made a superb move to rebound a shot by Payne and give Minnesota a three-goal margin.

Mulvey, however, hustled to beat the diving Meloche to the skidding puck and score after the goalie had stopped a breakaway by Mike Gartner. Then Kaszycki, in the left-wing circle, took Gartner's cross-ice pass and whirled to score again, with 1:43 left.

It was a good overall effort, possibly the Capitals' best since Green's debut in Boston Nov. 15. Helping was the return of defenseman Paul MacKinnon, who dealt some solid body checks, and center Rolf Edberg.

There were several scuffles early in the game, with Mulvey and Rowe ready to take on all comers. Referee Ron Wicks calmed Mulvey and Younghans with 10-minute misconducts after they circled with fists up late in the first period. Then linesman Bob Hodges, weary of separating battlers, halted a Rowe-Paul Shymr matchup before it got started by shoving the Minnesota captain to the ice.

Green, although not pleased that the team has won only one of its last 16 games, praised both the comeback and the way the players fought for each other.

"I like the togetherness," Green said. "Before I think the players were like neighbors -- it's better he gets hit than you. Now they're like brothers -- when he gets hit, you feel it."