Forget the final score. The only thing that really mattered in the 32nd National Hockey League All-Star Game occurred with 3 minutes 54 seconds left on the clock tonight.

Gordie Howe, eight weeks away from his 52nd birthday, checked Philadelphia defenseman Jim Watson off the puck in the corner and made a perfect pass to Quebec's Real Cloutier in the slot. Cloutier sent the puck into the net and the crowd of 21,002, largest in pro hockey history, went bananas, peaches and pears.

For the record, Howe's Prince of Wales Conference team won, 6-3, for its fifth straight victory in the series. Three goals spread among 1 minute 32 seconds earlier in the final period brought the Wales back from a 3-2 deficit and inflicted the first loss of the year on rookie goalie Pete Peeters, who is 20-0-5 with Philadelphia.

All three goals were scored by defensemen floating in close -- Pittsburgh's Ron Stackhouse, Minnesota's Craig Hartsburg and Detroit's Reed Larson. There were ample cheers for Larson, but the noise was nothing compared to the reaction roused by Howe's superb effort.

"It was great," Howe said later. "I felt good, because I'd missed Cloutier twice before when he was open. But I'd have given anything to get a goal."

There was one great opportunity in the first period, when Howe found himself open in the slot.

He moved in until he could read the brand name on Tony Esposito's glove, then fired away. Esposito made the save, aggravated his hand injury in the process and departed, leaving Peeters to play the remaining 44 minutes 50 seconds for the losing Campbell Conference.

"If I'd had less time to think I would have shot better," Howe said. "I changed my mind three times. I was afraid I'd get called for delay of game.

"I was aiming for the lower right corner and I put it up high and hit Tony's sore hand and put him out. I guess Tony wishes I'd put it somewhere else."

The Wales team took an early 2-0 lead on goals 21 seconds apart by Montreal's Larry Robinson and Minnesota's Steve Payne. Philadelphia's Reg Leach, the game's most valuable player, got one back. Atlanta's Kent Nilson tied it in the second period and the Flyers' Brian Propp gave the Campbells a short-lived lead early in the third.

The fans did not care. They chanted "Gor-die" every time Howe stepped on the ice and there were roars whenever he touched the puck. It was Howe's night and he thanked Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman for choosing him, even though he has not scored a goal in two months for Hartford.

"I never really had any thought that I'd be in this one," Howe said. "A fine gentleman, Scotty Bowman, gave me the opportunity and I'll be eternally grateful."

From the moment he was selected, the venerable ex-Red Wing became the focal point of this game. He was the last player to be introduced and the roars built up so early they drowned out mention of his name.

The crowd stood, screaming and chanting and clapping, for several minutes while Howe skated in circles, waved his stick, then bowed.

"It was beautiful but awkward, too," Howe said. "You don't know what to do. I was close to tears, that's why I went over to (Detroit trainer) Lofty Wilson to get a little comedy. I can't repeat what he said, 'cause this is a family show, but it broke the ice."

They brought Howe over with his old linemates, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, for the ceremonial puck dropping. Then they dropped the puck for real and it is noteworthy that only two players, Howe and Leach, had a shot on goal in each period. If some folks were concerned that Howe would embarrass himself, they need not have worried.

Washington defenseman Robert Picard playing for the losing Campbells, did not embarrass himself, either. He was on the ice for only one of the six Wales goals, played a sound game and dealt one of the night's better checks, on Bob Gainey of Montreal.

In the last minute, Picard was flattened by the game's heaviest hit, thrown by Montreal's frustrated Guy Lafleur, who went shotless.

In a 20-minute exhibition that preceded the All-Star Game, the Canadian Olympic team edged the United States team, 1-0, on a rebound goal by Gary Farelli.

The teams had met seven times before, with Canada winning four, and many of the players seemed more intent on evening old scores than in scoring. Canada let in shots on goal, 10-8, and was deprived of another score when Paul MacLean hit the inside of the goal post.