Mike Palmateer returned to Capital Centre last night after a year's absence and for two periods the former Washington goalie kept his current club, Toronto, in contention with some spectacular saves.
The Maple Leafs have not won a game away from home since January, however, and eventually the Capitals solved Palmateer with three goals in the third period that produced a 5-3 victory.
While Toronto was extending its streak of road failures to 22, Washington was ending a four-game winless streak that it compiled on a six-day trip to Western Canada that ended Wednesday in Edmonton.
"I think we were mentally tired," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said. "A lot of players did not seem really enthused about playing. When we talked about this game a month ago, we were afraid we'd have to write it off, so we'll take the two points and be glad it's over."
The Capitals outshot the Maple Leafs, 24-12, over the first two periods, but Toronto pulled even at 2-2 on Rick Vaive's second goal of the game at 33 seconds of the third period. Ex-Capital Mike Kaszycki's long shot rebounded off the rear boards to Vaive, who beat goalie Al Jensen from the right-wing circle.
At that point, there was concern that the weary Capitals never would get any good bounces. But Mike Gartner quickly put Washington back on top with an outstanding individual effort for his 13th goal.
When Toronto defenseman Jim Korn tripped Gartner, referee Denis Morel signaled a delayed penalty that seemed to freeze the Maple Leafs. Gartner rose, skated right into the crease and slid the puck behind Palmateer at 1:20.
"After I got up, it seemed like everybody else was falling," Gartner said. "Bobby (Carpenter) picked off the defenseman in front of the net and I was able to skate in and backhand it."
Bobby Gould gave Washington some breathing space at 5:28 with his seventh goal. Gaetan Duchesne shoved the puck out from behind the net and Gould, aiming high with the expectation that Palmateer would drop, lifted it over the goalie's right shoulder.
It became 5-2 at 13:38 when Ken Houston, after falling as he knocked the puck loose in the Washington end, rose and joined Dennis Maruk in a two-on-one break that Houston finished off for his 10th of the season, inspiring a derisive chant of "Palm-a-teer" from the crowd of 13,752.
The fans, who started out in a hostile mood, had one last opportunity to boo the home team when Korn scored a shorthanded goal on a long shot from the left-wing boards with 4:47 to play.
That final note of dissatisfaction was minimal, compared to the first-period jeers that followed defenseman Randy Holt to the penalty box with his second high sticking penalty in less than three minutes. When Vaive connected from behind the Washington net, on a pass that deflected off the Capitals' Brian Engblom, there was more verbal abuse.
The Capitals moved in front on second-period goals by Engblom and Carpenter as Palmateer, so sharp on the testing close-up shots, blew a couple from long range.
Engblom sent a 55-footer down the middle, with Houston screening Palmateer, only six seconds before a hooking penalty on Toronto's Borje Salming was due to expire.
Carpenter's long drive from the left-wing boards apparently was aided by the fact that Toronto center Greg Terrion obscured Palmateer's vision.
Not only did the Capitals put 37 shots on goal, they sent many others a few inches high or wide, as Palmateer seemed blessed with good fortune. At the other end, Jensen had his lucky moments, too, with both Kaszycki and Stewart Gavin hitting posts when they had Jensen beaten.
The save of the night was Jensen's property. In the first period, Slava Duris fed Peter Ihnacak, alone just outside the crease at Jensen's left. Ihnacak waited before lifting the puck toward the near corner. Jensen somehow gloved the shot, leaving Ihnacak staring in disbelief.
Part of the Capitals' defensive problems were related to penalties, as Holt and Rod Langway each drew three minors. Since Washington had only five defensemen dressed, it left the other three -- Engblom, Scott Stevens and Greg Theberge -- with extra duties.
Both Timo Blomqvist and Paul MacKinnon, whose ribs were bruised on the trip, had been expected to play, but were scratched after an unsatisfactory warmup.