Six nights ago, the Washington Capitals rid themselves of a 13-game winless straitjacket by burning the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tonight Toronto took a leaf out its own six-game victoryless string by edging Washington, 5-3.

The difference was goaltender Bunny Larocque, making his debut with Toronto after being dealt here Tuesday by Montreal for defenseman Robert Picard. Larocque blocked 38 shots and made several sensational saves in the closing minutes, when the Capitals came close to a tie.

Darryl Sittler completed a hat trick by scoring on an empty net with 12 seconds left to wrap it up for the Leafs. The effort the Capitals dispensed in defeat was apparent from the pileup of bodies -- Pat Ribble, Bob Kelly and Rick Green -- trying to smother Sittler's shot in the crease.

"That was a barnburner," said Toronto Coach Mike Nykoluk. "Both teams played with a lot of intensity and there was a lot of good hitting. Larocque played an excellent game. I don't know how he made some of those saves."

Some of the Capitals could not fathom Larocque's secret, either. Dennis Maruk seemingly had a deadlock zeroed in near the finish, but Larocque got his stick on the puck and deflected it wide.

"If it had been to either side of him, it would have gone in, but it hit his stick and went wide a couple of inches," Maruk said. "He didn't move. I don't think he knew where it was, but he stopped it. We didn't get the breaks, but we didn't quit."

The Capitals, who had won three straight four-goal decisions from Toronto, outshot the Leafs by 41-35 in their bid for a first-ever sweep of an opponent. They grabbed a 2-1 lead on Errol Rausse's goal early in the second period, fell behind by 4-2 and then came close enough to leave Nykoluk sweating 20 minutes after the game.

With the New York Rangers winning and moving two points ahead of Washington, the Capitals now hold 15th place by one point over Toronto, with Edmonton three farther back in 17th.

"This was our fifth game in seven nights and I thought the guys put out a hell of an effort," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "We knew we were short on legs in the third period and we needed a little additive in the fuel tank. Our guys made that extra effort and we had our chances to win it. Larocque played very well. We have to give him credit."

Sittler's second goal came short-handed in the second period, off an excellent pass by Bruce Boudreau, and created a 2-2 tie. Then Rick Vaive blasted home a rebound of a Borje Salming shot to give Toronto its first lead. When Ian Turnbull stole the puck from Dennis Ververgaert and scored early in the third period, the outcome seemed certain.

With 5:55 remaining, however, and four seconds after the Capitals wasted a power-play opportunity, Tim Tookey converted a Kelly setup to lift Washington within one. Suddenly, the Capitals were swarming and Larocque was most fortunate to hold off the attack, especially after Turnbull was assessed a questionable tripping penalty with three minutes left.

Sittler's three goals gave him 39 for the season and a career total of 367, making him the high scorer in the Leafs' 54-year history. He also was charged with three penalties, including a first-period roughing minor for dumping Mike Palmateer when the Washington goalie was caught out of his crease.

Palmateer, the ex-Leaf who had stayed close to his net while winning his last three starts, resumed his roaming tonight in front of a crowd of 16,485 that included many wearing No. 29 jerseys of both Capital red and Maple Leaf blue.

Palmateer was replaced for 88 seconds by Dave Parro while a strap on his left pad was repaired in the first period. Defenseman Rick Green left twice in the third period for repairs to a skate, with the blade collapsing just as he was about to complete a rush through the entire Toronto team.

"I think it collapsed because somebody tied a piano on my back tonight," Green said. "Or else I was towing a trailer. We had our chances, but we got a couple of bad breaks. That's all right. There's no time to get discouraged now."