For once, the Washington Capitals won the coin flip. If that sounds strange for a hockey game, so were some of the circumstances that surrounded their 3-2 victory over the Sabres at Capital Centre Saturday night, ending Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman's 45-game streak against Washington.

If Bowman's unbeaten career record against the Capitals defied belief, so did the coincidence of the Sabres' getting an apparent game-tying goal as the second period ended Saturday night. Although those last-second scores are exceedingly rare, the same thing happened the last time the Sabres came to Washington.

That was on Jan. 7, when the Capitals took a 2-0 lead and seemed on the way to victory, until the Sabres' Jim Wiemer scored as the first period ended. There was considerable doubt whether Wiemer's shot had beaten the buzzer, but after a conference between referee Bruce Hood and goal judge Roger Reinke, it was allowed. Buffalo, given a lift, rallied to win, 4-2.

The outcome was different Saturday night. Washington led, 2-1, when a shot by Mike Foligno was deflected into the net as the second period wound down. This time, a discussion between referee Ron Fournier and goal judge Gus Connery produced a no-goal ruling. When Phil Housley scored with six seconds left in the third period to lift Buffalo within one, Fournier's decision became very important.

Fournier refused to talk to the press, but the supervisor of officials, John Ashley, relayed the reasoning behind the ruling. He also indicated that it was probably the most difficult decision facing a referee.

"You can flip a coin, heads or tails," Ashley said. "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. You're going to have one team happy and one team upset. The back linesman (in this case, Leon Stickle) is assigned to watch both the light and the clock. But if there's no red light, what do you have left?"

Under the system used by the NHL, a green light automatically comes on when time runs out in a period. The goal judge is supposed to press a button switching on a red light the instant the puck enters the net. If the green light is on first, the red light cannot be turned on.

So it is basically simple. If the green light beats the red light, as occurred Saturday, there is no goal. However, human reactions being what they are, it obviously is possible for a goal to be scored before period's end if the goal judge is a trifle slow. That is what the Sabres contend happened.

"Trying to reconstruct it, there certainly was a lot of doubt," Bowman said. "The last time I looked at the clock, when he (Foligno) was shooting, it said two seconds. The ref said he had to rely on the goal judge. But after the game, the supervisor told me the back linesman was supposed to watch the puck and the clock, and that procedure was followed. The back linesman was Stickle and since there was a faceoff with seven seconds left, he apparently was aware of his responsibility. But he also has a lot of other things to look for, so how closely can you expect him to be doing that job?

"I talked to the game timekeeper (Phil Mattingly) and he told me he can't stop the clock unless he sees a red light or hears a whistle . . .

"My feeling is, the timekeeper is either honest or dishonest. Let's assume he's honest and let him decide in that situation. He's certainly got the best chance to be right. I hate to see a game decided like this, but it's just one of those goals that can be called either way, and this time we didn't get the call."

"I flipped the switch, looked up and the green light was on," Connery said. "Between the second and third period, I consulted with the ref and he made the decision. Anything else will have to come from him."

With Fournier unavailable, Ashley described the events that accompanied the no-goal decision.

"The ref tried to find out from the goal judge if the red light went on, but there was no opening in the glass and it was difficult to communicate," Ashley said. "The goal judge came around between periods and the ref finally found out the red light was not on.

"The next thing is to make a decision between the referee and the two linesmen if the puck was in the net before the period ended. In conferring, they decided it went in a split second after the period ended.

"But you're talking about something that's faster than the eye can see or the ear can hear. It's a tough call, just about an impossible call."

The dispute came at the end of a weekend of controversy between the teams. The Sabres won in Buffalo Friday by the same score, on a last-minute power play goal that followed a hooking penalty to Washington's Mike Gartner. Washington Coach Bryan Murray vented his wrath at referee Don Koharski after that one, using language that only a referee would tolerate.

"It's nice to hear another coach screaming for a change," Murray said of Bowman's lengthy postgame complaints Saturday.