Robert Picard was desperately ill before last night's game with the Winnipeg Jets. When the final buzzer sounded, it was the Jets who felt sick, because Picard's two goals and resounding checks carried the Washington Capitals to a 5-4 victory.

Picard's second goal, a 55-foot blast with 3 minutes 15 seconds remaining, ruined the second coming of Tom McVie, the former Washington coach who walked through the Capitals' bench before the game, then stood excitedly on his own in the closing minutes.

For a while, it appeared that the Jets would beat Washington for the first time in three tries. They grabbed an early 2-0 lead, then rallied from a 3-2 deficit to jump in front at 4-3 early in the third period of a long shot by Barry Melrose that glanced off Picard's stick.

But it took less than a minute for Bengt Gustafsson to steal the puck from Winnipeg's Scott Campbell in center ice and whip a 40-footer past goalie Pierre Hamel.

The teams then traded scoring opportunities, with Hamel and Rollie Boutin making some marvelous saves, until Picard took Wes Jarvis' pass, skated over the blue line and unloaded. Early in the season, it might have gone wide. Last night it was one of eight on net, one of two to light the red lamp.

"I was just trying to hit the net, not trying to go through anybody like before," Picard said. "Winnipeg plays a style that gives you a lot of shots from the point and I hoped I could get one in.

"I got up yesterday and I felt so awful. I thought maybe I was tired from the weekend trip. But I ate last night and then I got sick. I was sick about five times before the game. It was awful. The doctor deserves a lot of credit for getting us settled. He gave us pills between periods and we drank flat Coke and by the third period I was starting to feel better."

There was speculation that Picard and many of his teammates were the victims of food poisoning, either from something eaten on the charter flight back from Quebec Sunday or while they were in their hotel in the Canadian city.

Rolf Edberg and Antero Lehtonen were unable to dress last night, while Picard, Pierre Bouchard, Jarvis, Mike Kaszycki and Ryan Walter were the most seriously affected of those who played. Coach Gary Green was hit during the game, while Roger Crozier, the assistant general manager, became ill during the first period and left.

"We were lucky to be able to stand up out there," Green said. "We felt we were the better hockey club, but we didn't have the strength to go at them. Considering the circumstances, healthwise, we played very well."

Green was not too weak to join McVie as a bench-stander in the last few minutes, but he said, "I was fine for the first period and then it hit me afterward. I'm pretty weak right now."

McVie's handshake was as firm as ever, but he, too was drained. The Jets have lost six straight and this was tough to take.

"It takes a lot out of us, to work that hard and not get anything out of it," McVie said. "It's the same situation as when I was here, you start to run out of convincing things to say to them. A loss like that doesn't do us any good.

"We know we have a long road ahead. We're not giving up our draft choices and these guys know they're it for us. General managers in this league only give you snow in the winter and if you're drowning, they'll throw you an anchor. It's like the people behind the wagons in a Western movie, waiting for the cavalry with the Indians riding around. For us, the cavalry isn't coming."

Many of the friends McVie made here were in the crowd of 7,028 and they reacted when he walked behind the Washington bench after coming on the ice before the start of the game.

Lars-Erik Sjoberg intercepted a Gustafsson clearing attempt and got things going with a slap shot off the stick of Washington's Rick Green, returning from a four-game absence because of a sprained wrist. Then Winnipeg bad guy Jimmy Mann fought big Paul Mulvey to a draw and, when rookie John Markell's deflection made it 2-0 before the period ended, the Jets looked like winners.

A Picard check early in the second period sent Mann to the bench with bruised ribs. Then a Leif Svensson goal became a two-pointer when Hamel angrily threw the puck in the stands and Picard used a Bob Sirois screen to connect on the power play. Mark Lofthouse gave the Capitals a 3-2 edge, before the Jets' Craig Norwich hit from long range to tie it.

Actually, there were three coaches of the Capitals at the game. The third was Danny Belisle, who replaced McVie and was succeeded by Green. He sat in the stands, with no urge to climb on his seat to watch the final moments.