When the Washington Capitals are struggling, they usually can count on Gaetan Duchesne to make life easier. It was that way tonight, as Duchesne scored a third-period goal and set up another in the Capitals' 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For two periods, the game's only score was provided by Mike McEwen, his third in two nights. Following Duchesne's game-breaking performance, Peter Ihnacak put Toronto on the board before Rod Langway concluded the scoring into an empty net with two seconds left.

It was the Capitals' fifth straight triumph in Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs have won only once in their last nine games, and it enabled Washington to increase its Patrick Division lead to double figures, 10 points in front of Philadelphia.

Duchesne was on the ice for every goal in the game. His contribution to McEwen's opening score was minimal, since he was on his knees in front of the net, after being cross checked, when McEwen's drive from the right point sailed past him.

"I was cross checked in the back and it hurt a little bit, so I stayed there to get my breath," Duchesne said. "It was sore, but it was not so bad after the puck went in the net."

It was more than 27 minutes before another puck went into a net. Then it was propelled there by Duchesne's stick, as he redirected Larry Murphy's pass from the deep slot.

"I yelled at Larry and he passed it right on the ice," Duchesne said. "I had my stick on the ice and just tipped it."

"He yelled at me and I took quite a bit off," Murphy said. "I thought he'd stop it. He was quite a ways out when he deflected it."

Less than two minutes later, Duchesne took the puck behind the Toronto goal line, skated into the right wing corner and made a perfect pass to Dave Christian, who netted his 19th goal from the slot.

Ihnacak skated into the crease and banged the puck off Riggin's stick to convert a power play three-on-one with 6:34 remaining. Although Riggin lost his shutout bid, his 59th victory as a Capital gave him the club lead, one more than injury-plagued Al Jensen, who watched from the press box.

Riggin stopped 19 shots and there was reason to believe that Langway and Scott Stevens combined to block almost as many.

"They both made some big plays," said Coach Bryan Murray. "There were several times when we were outnumbered in our zone and Scott or Rod was able to get in front of a shot."

The scoreless second period produced probably the worst 20 minutes of hockey in which the Capitals have participated this season. Toronto outshot Washington, 4-3, but the Leafs had managed only two shots by the time Alan Haworth put the Capitals' first on goalie Tim Bernhardt at 17:03.

There was considerable excitement during a delayed penalty to the Leafs' Jim Korn, as Greg Adams fired a shot from a tough angle and the puck struck the glass and skidded down ice toward the Washington goal, already vacated by Riggin. Stevens skated quickly to the rescue, snaring the puck when it was about 20 feet away.

"I really wasn't thinking about a goal," Stevens said. "I knew I had it and it wasn't that close. But I saw a Leaf guy coming and I was afraid he might try to pick me off and let it roll in, so I got going a little faster. He couldn't touch the puck, or play would have stopped, but if he'd pushed me away it would have been just as good."

While Washington's Peter Andersson was in the penalty box, Riggin made a big save on John Anderson. At the same time, Murphy caught Toronto's Rick Vaive in the face with his stick. Although referee Don Koharski did not see Murphy's act, he assessed a major penalty after conferring with linesman Ron Asselstine.

"I tried to hit him in the chest and he fell into me," Murphy said. "I was just trying to push him over. I could see a two-minute penalty, but I didn't think it deserved five."

The Leafs were looking at a two-man advantage for 58 seconds and a one-man edge for the next 4:02. But a mere 19 seconds later, Toronto's Gary Leeman was penalized for interference and by the time Murphy returned to the ice, the Leafs had not put a shot on goal.

"The second period was really ragged," Murray said. "We were killing penalties and chattering too much because of the penalties, and we lost our concentration."

Despite a minimal number of saves, Riggin had an interesting evening.

In the first period, he was checked into the boards behind the net by Korn. He used his stick on both Ihnacak and Vaive, while complaining to Koharski about what Riggin considered Toronto intrusions into the crease area.

On one of Washington's three ineffective power plays, Riggin skated across the blueline and passed ahead to Bengt Gustafsson, trying to ignite the Capitals offensively.

For that, it took another defensive specialist, Duchesne.