On most nights when the Washington Capitals are trying to hold a one-goal lead, the third period seems to drag like the last five minutes of an NCAA basketball tournament game. Tonight, however, the clock was on rapid-fire countdown as the Capitals shut out the Philadelphia Flyers over the final 20 minutes and protected a 3-2 victory.

The puck was dropped at 7:06 and by 9:18 the Capitals were celebrating their fourth straight victory and their seventh success in the last eight games. Of those seven victories, six have been by one goal, the other by two.

Washington took the season series (4-3) over the Flyers for the second straight season and once again climbed into a second-place tie with the New York Islanders in the Patrick Division.

Philadelphia managed only six shots in the third period, to Washington's seven, as the Capitals repeatedly broke up the Flyers' plays at the blueline and dumped the puck down the ice. There were few stoppages of play, therefore few faceoffs and few opportunities for Philadelphia to set up plays.

"We've only lost one game after leading into the third period (Nov. 21 in Vancouver), so I was quite confident of our ability to hold off the Flyers," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "The way Pat Riggin was playing in goal and the way everybody was working in front of him, I knew they would have to work awfully hard to get one."

Riggin stopped 29 shots, with his biggest save coming on Ilkka Sinisalo, who was set up in front by Behn Wilson with Washington ahead, 2-1, in the second period. Moments later, Sinisalo hooked Scott Stevens and on the ensuing penalty Craig Laughlin gave the Capitals a 3-1 lead with his 16th goal.

Greg Theberge's drive from the point bounced hard off the rear boards and quickly came out to Laughlin, who swept it in from the left of goalie Pelle Lindbergh at 10:07.

"Greg shoots off the post so I can tip it, but this was wider than most," Laughlin said. "It came off the boards and I shot right away. I saw it in the back of the net, but my first thought was that it went through the side of the net. I had to look at the goal judge to be sure it was in.

"The boards are extra fast here and it's hard for wingers to pick the puck off the boards. We noticed that a lot of the shots in the warmup were hitting behind the net and coming out over the top."

The Flyers crept within 3-2 at 13:12, when Bill Barber was pulled down after taking Mark Howe's headman pass. During the delay for a Washington penalty, the puck lay in the slot and trailer Paul Evans was able to knock it past Riggin.

Not long after, Riggin made a close-range stop on Bobby Clarke. Then the Capitals put their kitty-bar-the-door tactics on display.

Laughlin deflected a Theberge shot off a post while Evans served the game's last penalty late in the second period, then those concluding 20 minutes ticked off faster than a time bomb in a Saturday morning cartoon.

"They took a couple of penalties and when we got the power-play goal and hit the post, they seemed reluctant to take a chance of another penalty," Murray said. "We're fighting for second and they don't have that incentive . . . "

The Flyers were losing for only the 10th time in 44 games in which they scored first. Ray Allison connected at 17:04 of the first period, on a rebound of a shot by Wilson, who had stripped the puck from Laughlin inside the Washington blueline.

Mike Gartner's 36th goal tied it less than two minutes later, following some nifty passes by Dennis Maruk and Bengt Gustafsson.

The Flyers swarmed into the Capitals' end during the first seven minutes of the second period, but Riggin held them off. Riggin made seven saves before Gustafsson deflected a drive by Stevens to make it 2-1 on the Capitals' first shot of the period at 7:10. It was Gustafsson's 22nd goal.

Stevens enjoyed an outstanding night and he brought "ooh" from many of the 17,147 fans with a third-period blueline check that sent Flyer tough guy Paul Holmgren tumbling over his back. The next time Stevens touched the puck, Holmgren tried to run him into the boards, but Stevens ducked and Holmgren hit nothing but glass.

With 51 seconds remaining, Riggin left his crease to glove a rebound off the rear boards. Wilson put a knee in the goalie's tailbone and spun him to the ice. After Riggin received treatment, Murray used a timeout to give him additional rest.

"He kneed me in the back and it just hurt a little bit," Riggin said. "It will be a little sore tomorrow. I was out of the net, so I can't complain."