What had been a team of bewildered underachievers rode the bus here from Toronto today full of confidence, and why not?

The Washington Capitals, who lost their first three games and play only one of the next five at home, were staring at the likelihood of a 0-9 start when the Toronto Maple Leafs' Greg Terrion hit an empty net with 17 seconds left in regulation for an apparent 6-4 final score Wednesday night. But referee Kerry Fraser ruled Terrion had tripped Larry Murphy to gain possession, and Fraser disallowed the goal.

Mike Gartner tied it for Washington with four seconds left, Gaetan Duchesne won it in overtime, 6-5, and the Capitals were celebrating a victory and Canada's Thanksgiving a couple of days late. The team will now begin a home-and-home series against the potent Buffalo Sabres, a series that before Wednesday's victory loomed as certain losses five and six.

"When that empty-net goal went in, I had a sinking feeling," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "I didn't hear the whistle, and I thought it was over.

"That type of win might be the best medicine we could get to get it going. We didn't play well. We made so many mistakes. When you lose four or five in a row, you start to play against each other rather than for each other. It was critical in that respect to turn it around."

Two years ago, the Capitals lost their first seven games, and it took a spectacular goaltending performance by Al Jensen to beat Philadelphia and end the slide. That was the start of a five-game winning streak and the Capitals went on to a 101-point season.

"There's no question that when things are going bad, they seem to get worse, but when they're going good, you seem to get everything your way," said General Manager David Poile. "We needed a victory very badly, and we have to feel a lot of relief after that one."

"It was a strange situation, but a perfect way to get us going, a victory like that," said Murphy, who had no idea Terrion was even near him on the fateful trip. "We played well in our first three games and had no luck. Then, against Toronto, we made some mistakes and got some breaks.

"Maybe things are evening up a bit. I remember the game in Winnipeg two years ago that ended our (10-game) winning streak. Rigger (goalie Pat Riggin) and I went for the puck and left it for each other and they scored. This time, it went our way."

Gartner, who scored for the second straight game after Murray pulled the goalie, said, "It was kind of a nice way to do it. Seven-one would have been okay, but this is a good way to win it. Instead of maybe feeling we couldn't get a break, now we can feel more optimistic in a tough situation."

Duchesne said, "We needed the break. I hope it will put us on the winning track. Now, the team knows we can win. We have a good team, even if we maybe haven't looked like it."

The Capitals' performance Wednesday was by far their worst of the season, with passes constantly going awry and defensemen frequently caught up ice, so that Jensen often had to skate into the corners to play the puck.

"It was a poor performance, but it wasn't for lack of effort," Poile said. "Everybody was trying to do too much. They forget it's a team game. But it's a natural thing when you're in a losing streak, as we found out two years ago."

Murray sat out defenseman Darren Veitch in Toronto and he indicated Murphy probably would be benched in Buffalo. Although he cited "performance" as a reason, Murray conceded that there were other candidates for bench duty. Even all-stars Rod Langway and Scott Stevens have been embarrassed all too frequently in the first week of the season.

"You tell the defensemen to pinch and go wide and they're cheating up the middle, getting beaten time and time again," Murray said. "This was a lucky win, and I hope everyone understands that.

"Maybe Darren being able to see what's going on, he can go out there and do his job the right way. Murphy is the next guy who figures to watch -- until they understand you can't play hockey this way. If they think they're playing well, they won't believe me when I tell them they're not. But if they see it, maybe they'll believe it."