The Washington Capitals and 13,551 fans broke the sound barrier at Capitol Centre last night, celebrating that long-awaited first victory over the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.

It was the teams' 35th meeting and it was No. 35 in the nets, goalie Wayne Stephenson, who played the key role in the 3-1 triumph. Stephenson blocked 31 shots, 14 in the final period when the swift Canadiens were buzzing in the Washington end.

Montreal fired the first 10 shots of the third period and hit both the post and the crossbar. Then Swedish rookie Bengt Gustafsson of the Capitals maneuvered around defender Gaston Gingras and beat goalie Denis Herron with a breakway bullet.

Although it was Washington's first shot of the period, only 7:07 remained to play. The Capitals, who had been dragging a hit, gained renewed strength and there was a feeling of victory, rather than fear of late-game failure, in the air.

Mike Gartner turned that wonderful feeling into a victory celebration by lining a 100-foot shot into an empty net with 50 seconds on the clock.

"It was 2-1 and I had to think in the back of my mind, "Can they come back?'" Gantner said. "Then I looked at that empty net and I said, 'This one's going in there.' So many have gone wide and so many have hit posts, but this one went right in and we had it. They couldn't take it away."

A new league rule forbids emptying the bench to celebrate a goal, so the players on the ice did their best to do the occasion justice. Then, at game's end, the whole team mobbed Stephenson while the crowd stayed to scream.

"We guaranteed it; we had to win," Stephenson said, referring to a guaranteed-win promotion that provided free tickets to a future game if Washington failed for the 35th time to beat the Canadiens. If the fans cared that they would have to pay next time, it was not noticeable.

"We've had so many things bounce against us, that I was glad to see it turn our way," Stephenson said."I was thinking back to that Philadelphia game, when they scored with four seconds left, and I didn't want that to happen again. I guess the odds were on our side, not beating them in 34 games.

"This was a big game for us. It was a home game, and we have only four this month, and we played hard to win it. We did win it. It's really nice to beat that club."

Stephenson assisted on the winning goal, which was not too surprising, since he handled the puck as much as any Capital during the last 20 minutes. Bob Sirols took the goalie's clear and fed the puck up to Gustafsson at the red line.

Gustafsson, who had missed yesterday's practice because of a pulled groin muscle, faked his way past defenseman Gingras, lifting Gingras' stick up in the process. Then, as Herron started out, Gustafsson drilled the puck past him.

"I've been saving it for a long time," said Gustafsson, who has been missing breakaways and penalty shots with heartbreaking frequency.

"I had the guy behind me, so I had to shoot. The more I played tonight, the better I felt. The first period my legs felt heavy, because I hadn't skated for two days, not even this morning."

Another Washington hero was defenseman Robert Picard, who was hit above the right eye by a puck during the pregame warmup and required 12 stitches. Picard played anyway, as hockey players are accustomed to do, and broke a scoreless tie with a blast from the right point at 10:53 of the second period.

"I had a little dizziness and the first couple of shots I wasn't all there," Picard said. "Once I got some skating in, I was all right. Today everybody gave 150 percent. And some of us who weren't scoring last week, when Walt's (Ryan Walter's) line was carrying the team, helped out with the goals."

Defenseman Pat Ribble made his first appearance in a Washington uniform and dealt some thumping checks, blasting Yvan Lambert and Doug Jarvis in particular with hits that could be felt 40 rows back.

"I was a little nervous my first game here and that's the way I get into a game," Ribble said. "You have to take the body against this team, the way (Bob) Gainey and Lambert skate up and down the wing."

Pierre Mondou can sail, too, and he cut past defenseman Pierre Bouchard to score Montreal's only goal, just 110 seconds after Picard connected. Mondou lost control as he tried to set up a backhander, then reached out and poked the puck between Stephenson's legs.

The first two periods were even, both on the ice and scoreboard, but at the start of the third the Canadiens went into overdrive. When Lambert hit a crossbar and Pierre Larouche hit a post 30 seconds apart, there was reason to believe that all that bad luck that has plagued the Capitals might finally be evening out.

"We were playing our hardest and usually when we play our hardest terrible things happen," Gartner said. "But when they hit two posts I figured maybe things were turning our way. Beating the National Hockey League champions, that's a hell of a feeling."

While rookie Wes Jarvis stood on the Capitals' bench waving his arms in joy, some Capitals in the stands were celebrating, too.

"Being here three years and coming so close, I know how much this means to the team," said bearded Guy Charron, a victim of knee surgery.

"I remember all the times we outshot them and lost," said Yvon Labre, an original Capital and another knee surgery convalescent. "It's finally turning around."

A lot of others who have suffered in the stands hope he is right.