A crowd of 3,284 diehards braved the snow last night to watch Wayne Gretzky. They wound up cheering Dennis Maruk, whose 31st goal, with 10 seconds left, enabled the Washington Capitals to tie the Edmonton Oilers, 6-6.

Gretzky collected his 55th goal and two assists, for a total of 67, as Edmonton built an early 4-1 lead. But Bengt Gustafsson shut him down thereafter and the Capitals first pulled ahead 5-4, then earned the deadlock after goalie Dave Parro had been lifted for a sixth skater.

Many in Capital Centre's smallest-ever hockey crowd missed Gretzky's heroics, because he amassed all his points in the first 10 minutes. But with no traffic to beat, they were all there to salute Maruk, who combined with Gustafsson to frustrate Gretzky one last time.

The winning play did not evolve the way Coach Bryan Murray planned it, because his idea was overruled by Maruk, who won a faceoff from Gretzky in the Edmonton end after the Oilers took a timeout with 14 seconds left. The puck went to Gustafsson near the right-wing boards and he returned it to Maruk, who beat rookie goalie Grant Fuhr with a rising 35-footer.

"Bryan came over and asked me if I could win the draw," Maruk said. "I told him Gretzky was one of their best but I'd try. I just wanted to do it my way. I have better success on my forehand than the backhand, so I put the offwinger (Gustafsson) over there.

"The important thing was to win the faceoff and I wasn't thinking about getting the puck and shooting. I figured either Gus would shoot or he'd give it to Garts (Mike Gartner) and he'd shoot. But Gus gave it back and I just wanted to put it on net and get it up. He (Fuhr) had been dropping a lot and I knew there'd be a maze of players in front of him."

"The puck was supposed to go to Mike," Gustafsson said, "but Gretzky and someone else were breaking out and PeeWee (Maruk) was all alone, so I gave it to him and he scored. I feel great the way it came out."

Gretzky did not feel great. The goal and two assists were forgotten as he slowly undressed, head down.

"When you're winning, 6-5, and you finish like that, it's just awful," Gretzky said. "I lost the draw and the next thing I know it's in the net. It was nobody's fault but mine.

"It's not so bad when you lose the faceoff, but when your man scores . . . Everybody makes mistakes, but when you make a mistake like that, it hurts the hockey club. It shouldn't have happened. But he (Maruk) deserved it. It was a nice shot."

Gretzky was dumped by Gustafsson on his first shift of the game, but Gustafsson banged his tender left ankle in the process and went to the bench. Gretzky eluded replacement Bobby Carpenter and hit a 40-footer at 1:58.

Gretzky did not get away from Gustafsson over the last 50 minutes and was hardly a factor in the play. Knocked to the ice several times, he complained to referee Kerry Fraser on one occasion and twice slashed Gustafsson. Still, he offered no alibi at the finish.

"I get it every game and it doesn't really bother me at all," Gretzky said. "Give him (Gustafsson) credit. He worked hard out there."

"I only remember him hitting me once, but that was enough to make me happy," Gustafsson said. "You have to be happy he's trying to get you instead of playing his game. After the first period, it looked like he didn't want to do anything. He got away from the play."

Goals by Gartner, Chris Valentine, Gaetan Duchesne and Ryan Walter wiped out Edmonton's early advantage and gave the Capitals a 5-4 lead. Then, with Walter off for holding late in the second period, Bobby Gould hit a post after stealing the puck from the Oilers' Glenn Anderson. Play quickly moved to the other end and Paul Coffey netted a 55-footer to tie the game.

Edmonton took a 6-5 lead on a goal by Dave Hunter, playing his first game since suffering a knee injury six weeks ago. He was set up by previously pointless Curt Brackenbury, recalled Tuesday from Wichita of the Central League to replace enforcer Dave Semenko, who started a six-game suspension yesterday for coming off the bench to join a fight.

Washington appeared to have a tie when Darren Veitch sent a deflected shot off the crossbar and the goal light came on with three minutes left. But it was a false alarm, with the actual tying goal to be earned under more dramatic circumstances.

Maruk's score was the final thrill for a crowd that found itself plied with free parking, free coffee and hot chocolate, and free tickets to a future game.