Edmonton superstar Wayne Gretzky caught a finger in the gate to the team's bench as he left the ice in the second period last night. It hampered his play the rest of the way, but no more than did Washington's Bengt Gustafsson.

Gustfsson scored a key third-period goal and he and linemate Ryan Walter enjoyed plus-four nights as the Capitals lifted the cross of a five-game losing streak by whipping the Edmonton Oilers, 5-2, before 7,586 at Capital Centre.

Gretzky, kept off balance by Gustafsson's checking, was held scoreless and suffered through a minus-four game as Edmonton's loss string, coincidentally, was stretched to five games.

"This one had to be," Washington Coach Gary Green said. "If we'd lost this one, I don't think we could have gotten ourselves up for the weekend series with Philadelphia, the best team in the league. Now I feel, coming out of this game, we've got plenty left. And we've got two days to fill up our gas tank."

The night got off to an inauspicious start when goalie Wayne Stephenson caught a puck on the knee during the warmup and had to be assisted from the ice. He came back midway through the first period and manned the phones to the press box, but he is unlikely to face the Flyers this weekend.

Mike Palmateer earned his first back-to-back starts with an excellent 20-save effort that clearly showed he is healthy again after struggling with a sprained wrist, a bruised breastbone and a bruised knee. He had some help from the goalie's best friends, the goal posts, and a press-box observer commented after four Edmonton shots struck iron that "the Washington post was the No. 1 star."

The Capitals came out determined to win one and outshot the Oilers, 21-5, in the first period. The 21 shots were a team record for a home game and only one short of the overall mark, set against the Rangers in New York. But the period still ended at 2-2. It was enough to create premonitions of further disaster, but Green looked at the bright side.

"I was confident that if you put that amount of pressure on any team, you've got to win, except maybe once in a blue moon and we looked outside and there was no blue moon," Green said.

The tie breaker came at 8:03 of the second period on an unlikely wrist shot by the guy whose sore wrist had helped dig the current hole for Washington, defenseman Rick Green.

Mike Gartner, who had scored his 19th goal earlier to create a 2-2 tie, swept down the right wing in traffic. He sent a pass back to Green, who had difficulty controlling the puck before lifting a shot just under the crossbar.

"I actually put it where I wanted it for once," Green said. "I was fighting the puck all night and I didn't see that pass until the last second. It came into my skates, and I kicked it ahead and finally controlled it and I saw the corner and shot high and hit it. We're struggling, but we're slowly getting ourselves back together. Whatever it takes to win, we'll find it."

Gustafsson hit a post and Gartner plinked two behind ex-Capital goalie Ron Low before Gustafsson created some breathing space early in the third period. The Swede picked off a Don Murdoch pass and blasted a 40-footer past Low's stick to make it 4-2.

Then, with Low out for an extra skater, Guy Charron sent a most popular 150-foot shot into the vacated net to wrap it up. It was Charron's 218th NHL goal, not a particularly significant figure, yet he took the puck home as a souvenir, because it also happened to be his first in 25 games, most of which he has played as a penalty-killing specialist. f

"There are nights when you are in position for a lot of shots and nothing goes in, like the last two," Charron said. "And there are nights like this, when you're always in position to pass, but not to shoot, and you score anyway.

"It doesn't really matter, as long as you see the red light, which I hadn't seen for a long time. I really didn't see this one. I was stampeding and all the guys were congratulating me, they were so happy for me."

Another bright spot was the play of rookie defenseman Jim McTaggart, who earned one of the game's three stars with his first solid performance in six games since being called up from Hersey.

"I understood what I had to do a little better than the first time," McTaggart said. "I had a few practices under my belt and I was more relaxed."

After that victory, the whole team was more relaxed.

"We were geared all week long to win this one and get out of the slump," Gary Green said. "It's more mental than anything else. After a while, you begin to question when you'll win one."