The littlest Capital gave that monkey the biggest bump last night. Dennis Maruk, 5-foot-8 when his hair is long, became the Capitals' first-ever 40-goal scorer with a hat track that carried Washington to a 7-3 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs and ended that awful 13-game winless streak.

"The gorilla's off our back now," Maruk said. "It was a monkey, but then it grew and grew. Forty goals are nice, but just helping us to win is enough to make me happy."

It was enough to make the whole team happy, as well as the loyal fans and the crowd of 9,353 who reacted as if the Capitals had earned a playoff berth.

What Washington did was climb into a three-way tie for 15th place with Edmonton and Toronto, at 56 points each.

"It's like somebody just lifted 2,000 pounds off my back," said Coach Gary Green. "We started a new season today with 15 games left. We hit tonight like we haven't hit for a month and a half. What we've got to have is this kind of play on a consistent basis. We're going to take it one game at a time now."

Six weeks ago, Green gave the team a goal of 69 points to make the playoffs, instead of playing them one at a time, and chaos resulted.

In winning their first game since Feb. 1, the Capitals outplayed the Leafs from start to finish. But a 15-6 shooting edge in the first period resulted in only a 2-2 tie and there were a few doubts about what was to follow.

There was still some doubt when Maruk netted the tie-breaking goal late in the second period. He skated in from the right wing circle and lifted the puck just under the crossbar. Ryan Walter was in the crease when Maruk scored and many eyes followed referee Bruce Hood's movements before the goal became official.

"I had been battling (Dave) Farrish and when he turned to go for PeeWee (Maruk) I made an effort to pull out," said Walter. "Maybe Hood looked at the effort. But actually I don't think he saw it. I was sitting on the bench hiding while he talked to the linesman."

The result was assured in the first six minutes of the third period. After Toronto goalie Jim Rutherford blocked a shot by Walter, the Washington captain managed to pass the puck out to Dennis Ververgaert, who lifted it over the fallen Rutherford.

Maruk then scored twice in 39 seconds. He fired a shot off Rutherford's stick that prompted the goalie to bang the stick on the crossbar. Then he hit from the slot on a setup by Jean Pronovost.

The result was Maruk's first 40-goal season in six years as a pro, a club record for one season eclipsing Guy Charron's 38 of three years ago and a seventh career hat trick, third this season.

"We've been trying a little too hard of late,' Maruk said. "We had to relax more and play our game. We were taking out the man a lot more tonight." r

Defenseman Rick Green, troubled most of the season by minor injuries, scored two goals, carried the puck as he had not done all season and played an excellent defensive game as well.

"I got a little more room tonight," Green said. "I was skating better with the puck and I got my confidence back. I'm healthy now, I feel real good, and the guys are backing me up. We played a good sound disciplined game and we weren't running around.

"There was a lot of mental stuff that was going on while we were losing. We were lacking a little confidence and that throws you off your game, and everything seems to backfire. One thing's for sure -- that's not the end of it. We're going to keep on playing just like this."

Goalie Mike Palmateer played a sound game against his old teammates, blocking 25 shots. He made a key save on a first-period breakaway from Terry Martin with Washington ahead, 1-0.

"That breakaway was the turning point," Gary Green said. "You could sense the whole bench holding their breath, then everybody jump up and yell."

Palmateer stayed in the net much of the evening and waited for icing calls, of which there were many, rather than firing the puck up ice.

"Like a lot of other guys, Palmy (Plamateer) has been trying to do too much," Gary Green said. "The defense was trying to play goal, the forwards were trying to play defense. Tonight everybody did his job."

"We needed that one so bad just to break out of this hole we dug ourselves," said Mike Gartner, who recorded his 37th goal early in the first period and for a few moments shared the team lead with Maruk. "It gets rid of a lot of pressure. It could have come earlier, but we sure couldn't wait any longer."

The Leafs have lost five in a row and look like a team that wants to avoid the playoffs at all costs. The Capitals would be delighted to oblige them.