The Washington Capitals reached the 40-shot plateau last night for the first time in a month. Victory over the Los Angeles Kings came a lot harder than shots, but it was finally achieved, 5-3, on a power-play score by Mark Lofthouse and another empty-net clincher by Mike Gartner.

The Capitals were going downhill, following Marcel Dionne's tying goal just 13 seconds into the third period. They were exerting more energy complaining to the officials than in pursuit of victory, and then much-maligned referee Ron Hoggarth gave them a break, calling a holding penalty on Charlie Simmer.

Since Washington's power play had succeeded only twice in its previous 17 opportunities, there was no immediate rejoicing among the 9,516 fans. However, this time the extra man meant a big goal.

Point man Bengt Gustafsson shot wide of the net, but Bob Sirios retrieved the puck behind the goal line and fed it out to Lofthouse in the slot. Lofthouse then lined his first NHL game-winner into the upper left corner.

"Usually, where I was, there would have been a guy on me, but I guess the defense was worried about guys on the outside," Lofthouse said. "I had enough time to pull the puck from my backhand to my forehand. The goalie was down on the right side, so I put it up in the left corner.

"We came out for the third period to try to put it away quick, but then they got that quick goal and it took it right out of us. I was looking up at the board and I saw Quebec up 4-0 and I knew we had to win this."

Sirois was blasted after the game-winning pass and suffered an aggravation of a bruised right hip. It will not keep him out of Thursday's game in Detroit, a good thing because Rolf Edberg came up with a second-period groin pull that makes him doubtful and Rich Green is still out with a bruised knee.

"I came around the net with the puck and all I was looking for was a white sweater," Sirois said. "I saw one and I didn't even know it was Lofty, I just threw it there. I got hit after and I don't even know who it was. If you look to see if somebody's going to hit you, you'll never make a play."

Los Angeles pulled goalie Doug Keans for a sixth skater with 1:25 remaining and applied considerable pressure. Washington goalie Wayne Stephenson withstood it, however, making an especially fine save on Mike Murphy from close range.

Finally, Ryan Walter won a faceoff from the King's Don Howse and Robert Picard sent the puck into the Kings' zone. Gartner outsprinted Dionne in a battle of NHL Eric Heidens and hit the empty net from a severe angle near the right-wing boards.

"Before the faceoff, Pic said, 'Just go and I'll throw the puck to you,'" Gartner said. "Ryan got the draw, and it was a big one, and I went down the ice. When I started down, I was just thinking of avoiding any icing and keeping the puck there, but when I got it I figured I'd give it a try at the open net."

It was Gartner whose empty-net score wrapped up the first-ever victory over Montreal a week ago and he added, "This isn't quite the same feeling as Montreal, but at least we knew when it went in that it was over."

By winning, the Capitals climbed within three points of 16th place and that last playoff berth. It could have been demoralizing if they had not pulled out those two points.

In the first eight minutes last night, the Capitals outshot the Kings, 10-1, and grabbed a 1-0 lead on Wes Jarvis' 10th goal. Walter's deflection of a Pat Ribble blast made it 2-0 in the second period before penalties took away the Capitals' momentum.

Charlie Simmer converted two straight power plays, boosting his season total to 44 goals. Pat Ribble's first goal as a Capital regained the lead at 3-2 before Dionne's 45th evened things once again.

Goalie Gary Inness, who was sent to Hershey for two weeks in mid-January to work himself back into shape before rejoining the Capitals, has returned to Hershey.

Inness, who was the Capitals' top goalie last season, was No. 3 this season behind Rollie Boutin and Wayne Stephanson and seeing little action. He was sent to Hershey to sharpen up after Stephenson was benched and Boutin, playing every game, needed a backup.