The Washington Capitals ran into a lot of bad luck early in the season, but much of it evened up last night. They needed, and got, all the breaks they could get to defeat the St. Louis Blues, 7-5.

The Capitals built their unbeaten streak to eight games and reclaimed first place in the Patrick Division. Two points ahead of Philadelphia, they meet the Flyers tonight in the Spectrum.

Mike Gartner scored two goals and Bob Carpenter had his first four-point night of the season as the Capitals offset some loose defensive play.

After twice building three-goal leads, Washington made good on two of three third-period shots to fight off a frustrated St. Louis team that had closed to 5-4 and 6-5 during the frantic final session.

Gaetan Duchesne produced the clincher on a deflection of Doug Jarvis' pass with 1:46 remaining, a half minute after goalie Bob Mason made a sensational stop on Brian Sutter to keep the Blues from tying.

"On a night when we were playing pretty mediocre hockey, we beat a pretty good hockey club," said Coach Bryan Murray. "I expect we'll have the adrenaline flowing better tomorrow."

Two Washington goals could be considered in the lucky category. And, at least four times, the Blues were unfortunate not to score.

Carpenter kicked in his 27th goal to open the scoring, after St. Louis goalie Rick Wamsley blocked a power play shot by Scott Stevens. Referee Kerry Fraser allowed the score because Carpenter was cross-checked by Gilbert Delorme and Fraser felt it was the foul that provided the momentum.

"I was going to try to kick it on my stick," Carpenter said. "I wasn't trying to kick it in the net. I think it was a good call, because when you're cross-checked like that, you can't help it."

Bryan Erickson and Bob Gould scored around a goal down the middle by the Blues' Tim Bothwell for a 3-1 Capitals lead after a period in which Washington led in shots, 12-5.

Jarvis made it 4-1 on lucky score No. 2 in the second period. Gary Sampson tried to feed Gartner near the right post, but Bothwell batted it away -- onto the stick of Jarvis, who shoved it under Wamsley.

Nineteen seconds after Greg Paslawski scored for the Blues, Gartner increased Washington's margin to 5-2 on a breakaway off Carpenter's pass.

When Erickson drew Washington's only penalty of the game, for playing with a broken stick, the Blues swarmed around Mason. The goalie, who was winning his fifth straight, made three superb saves before Bernie Federko converted a pass by Sutter to make it 5-3.

In the last 10 minutes of the second period, the Blues had numerous chances to move closer. On a shot by Dave Barr, the puck rolled over Mason's shoulder and dropped in the crease, but the goalie covered it. Then Doug Gilmour hit the crossbar, the puck caromed off the back of Mason's shoulder and dropped on the goal line, where it was covered once more.

Just as the period ended, Federko's cross-crease pass left Mark Reeds open for an easy score, but the green light signifying expiration of time preceded the red ignited by goal judge John Lyon. St. Louis argued with Fraser in vain.

The Blues came close a couple of times early in the third period before the first of two goals by Kevin LaVallee closed the gap to 5-4. Gartner scored on the Capitals' first shot at 7:52, on almost a carbon copy of his first goal.

"That gave us a little breathing room," Gartner said. "We needed it. We weren't checking very tightly."

With 6:44 remaining, a shot by LaVallee struck defenseman Rod Langway and caromed past Mason to cut the lead to 6-5.

When Sutter broke free in front, Mason got his glove on the shot and the puck popped up. Mason pounced on it as Paslawski, battling for a rebound, knocked the net loose.

"My arm went up and it went behind me, but I had it covered," Mason said. "They wouldn't have scored if the net stayed on . . . They didn't get a lot of shots, but they got a lot of quality shots."

Before the Blues could get another quality shot, Duchesne scored. "I rush the net, Jarvie gives me the pass and I tip it in over his (Wamsley's) shoulder," Duchesne said.

Before the game ended, there was one more weird touch.

With Wamsley off for a sixth skater, Duchesne headed toward the empty net with the puck. Twenty 20 feet out, he launched a soft shot and incredibly the stick blade came off, the puck going wide.

"I could have skated right in, but I didn't know the time left," Duchesne said. "I just push the puck and the stick broke in my hand. Maybe somebody take a saw and cut it before the game."

Duchesne, who uses Victoriaville sticks, played Santa Claus at the Capitals' party Friday. Teammate Dave Christian suggested that Duchesne give himself a present -- a Christian brand stick.