The Washington Capitals had an opportunity Saturday night to give one of their chief contenders for a playoff berth a mortal blow. Unable to reach the jugular, the Capitals now face a battle to the finish.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, winless in six games, trailed, 2-1, midway through the contest and appeared both aimless and dispirited. However, a shorthanded goal by Darryl Sittler pulled them even, Rick Vaive's rebound put them ahead and a giveaway by Dennis Ververgaert enabled Ian Turnbull to make it 4-2.

The Capitals rallied on Tim Tookey's goal with 5:55 left and had several chances to tie, only to be foiled by Bunny Larocque, making his first start after being dealt here from Montreal.

So instead of a first-ever season series sweep and a five-point margin over Toronto, the 15th-place Capitals are just one point in front of the Leafs, with Edmonton hovering three points further back. With the lift they received from Larocque, the Leafs just might be able to overcome an unfavorable schedule the rest of the way and pull out a playoff spot.

"If we want something bad enough, we should have enough guys on this club to go out and do it," said Toronto Coach Mike Nykoluk. "Larocque should give the guys a lot of confidence. Jiri (Crha) has played well, but the one goal he lets in is often an easy goal and you can see the guys sag a bit. Larocque seems more steady."

Larocque recorded 38 saves as Washington outshot the Leafs, 41-36. At one stage in the first period, with the Leafs shorthanded and trailing, 1-0, he foiled Glen Currie on a breakaway, blocked Howard Walker's follow-up and smothered two rebounds by Alan Hanglesben. Not long after, Sittler pulled Toronto even with the first of his three goals.

"Bunny Larocque was unbelievable," Sittler said. "He made the important saves when we needed them. He's a quiet type of a guy. Bunny didn't say a whole lot, but we knew he was ready."

Larocque came out a half-hour early for practice Friday, inviting teammates to shoot at him. It was a refreshing attitude on a team that that seemed to be looking forward to season's end.

"The guys see that, the way he works, and it can only make them want to work harder," Nykoluk said.

There were no complaints about the Capitals' effort, but playing their fifth game of the week they became victims as much of the schedule as of the Leafs. Noticeably weary were defensemen Rick Green and Pat Ribble, who were on the ice for all five Toronto goals, and forwards Ververgaert and Jean Pronovost.

Tookey and Errol Rausse saw considerable, effective action and one had to wonder whether the presence of a fresh Rick Smith or Guy Charron might not have been enough to tip the scales and put the Leafs in the mulcher.

Washington is idle until Wednesday night, when the Quebec Nordiques come to Capital Centre looking to sweep that season series.

"We owe Quebec something," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "We have a few days of rest coming up and we'll be ready for them."

The Capitals may have time to rest but, because of Saturday's loss, they don't have any breathing space.