The Washington Capitals can win the close ones, too. Protecting a 3-2 lead over the last nine minutes, the Capitals tonight completed a most unexpected and most welcome sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Unlike Saturday's 10-4 laugher in Washington, this was a tense battle all the way, with the Flyers pulling even early in the third period and rookie Chris Valentine making his NHL debut a memorable one by scoring the game-winning goal for Washington with 9:24 left.

Flyer defenseman Glen Cochrane lost the puck as he back-pedaled at his blueline. Gaetan Duchesne picked it up and passed to Tim Tookey, who faked Cochrane to the ice before slipping a pass to Valentine on the right wing. The 20-year-old from Sorel, Quebec, a 10th-round draft choice last summer, lifted it over the left shoulder of goalie Pete Peeters.

"Playing with the guys I was with, my mother could have put it in the net," said Valentine. A center with Hershey, he was recalled today and used at right wing because Bengt Gustafsson came up lame after being struck in the instep by a puck on Saturday.

The Capitals gave the Flyers few chances thereafter and Mike Palmateer, in his first goaltending appearance since Nov. 13, snapped them up.

With 16 seconds left, the Flyers resorted to a trick that had earned them a power-play chance twice earlier this season. They asked for a measurement of Mike Gartner's stick and Gartner, doubtful of the outcome, tried in vain to swap it at the bench.

It turned out to be legal, though, and for the first time the Flyers wound up short-handed as the losers of the dispute.

"I knew it was close and I didn't want to take a chance," Gartner said. "I wanted to get rid of it."

By winning, the Capitals extended their modest winning streak to four games, they are unbeaten in five and, with 11 points, they trail the fourth-place New York Rangers by six and the third-place Flyers by 10.

"This is one of the teams we have to beat to do anything at all," said defenseman Terry Murray, a standout on the backline with Rick Green. "The next thing, we might be out to catch a couple of teams that are ahead of us."

Alan Hangsleben, who had played 15 games on the wing this season without scoring a goal, started on defense tonight, with Howard Walker needing treatment for a finger that was gashed in Saturday's fight with Paul Holmgren.

On his first shift, Hangsleben fired a shot from the left point and, with Gartner screening Peeters, the puck bounded between the goalie's pads. The score was doubly remarkable, since Hangsleben's sticks were left behind at Capital Centre and he was using an old model once the property of Paul Mulvey.

Dennis Maruk boosted the Capitals' margin to 2-0 late in the first period on his second short-handed score of the season. Maruk stole the puck from Brian Propp at the Washington blueline, broke free down the left side and beat Peeters with a low shot into the far corner. It was the 15th of the season and 200th career goal for Maruk.

"I took a look at the net first and he gave me quite a bit of room," Maruk said. "I kept her down and it went in. It's important to get a shot on net. I tried to deke Saturday and never got a shot off."

The Flyers' power play, best in the NHL, clicked early in the second period, as Ron Flockhart caromed a shot off the post on the short side after Ken Linseman set him up in the right-wing circle. Bill Barber also assisted for his 700th NHL point.

Barber tied it on a shot from the left-wing circle early in the third period. Tim Kerr outdrew Tookey in the Washington end to set that one up.

Coach Bryan Murray used his youngsters in responsible positions throughout, so Valentine was on the ice to put the winner home, rather than sitting on the bench, the fate of most youngsters in the third period of a tie game.

"It was nice to be able to win one like that and nice to have Valentine come up big," Murray said. "If you're going to bring people in to play, you have to let them do the things they can to contribute."

Hangsleben was a big help, too, coming back to take the puck away from Flockhart as he crossed the Washington blueline with a minute left.

"I can protect certain people on the bench, but if you want to give them confidence, you have to go with them in the tough spots," Murray said.

This weekend gave all the Capitals a double dose of confidence.