Duane Sutter and Neal Coulter scored 29 seconds apart late in the third period tonight to break a 3-3 tie and give the New York Islanders a 5-3 National Hockey League victory over the Washington Capitals.

New York's Bill Smith stopped 28 shots, 13 in the final period, to become the first goaltender to post 20 regular-season triumphs against Washington.

"That might give me another year on my contract," said Smith, who is 34 but still tough in the big games.

Smith began the play on the game-winning goal, shoveling the puck to Mike Bossy in the faceoff circle at his right. Bossy's perfect headman pass sent Sutter in on a breakaway, and Sutter faked goaltender Al Jensen to the ice before lifting the puck over him with 4:18 remaining.

"As soon as I saw Smitty make the save with time to pass it off, I took off," Sutter said. "I yelled, Boss heard me and I had a step on both defensemen (Scott Stevens and Kevin Hatcher).

"Boss made a great pass, and I was able to put it in. It made me feel good, because I was on the ice for the tying goal (by Dave Christian six minutes earlier). We said to each other on the bench that we had to get it back, and fortunately we did.

"This was a big win. We needed it to stay close in the standings. They're a good team, and tonight's game could have gone either way."

Coulter, who made his NHL debut with a goal in Washington's win by the same score at Capital Centre Friday, got his second in as many shots when he beat Jensen from the right-wing circle at 16:11 of the third period.

That atoned somewhat for previous line play, since Coulter's center, Scott Howson, had been foiled on two breakaways by Jensen earlier in the period.

Alan Haworth, Mike Gartner and Christian scored for Washington, which had a four-game unbeaten streak stopped. It also was the team's first loss in the six games that captain Rod Langway has missed as a Capital.

"We played really well in the third period, and we had the chances and the effort," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "We seemed fresh, we had three great chances without scoring and then we make a mistake and they win it."

A goal by John Tonelli on the first shot of the game and two by Bryan Trottier gave the Islanders a 3-1 lead by the second minute the second period. Tonelli's score at 37 seconds of the first period was the second time in three games that a Capitals opponent had converted the first shot. St. Louis' Greg Paslawski scored at the eight-second mark Tuesday in a 6-3 Capitals win.

Haworth's sixth goal in five games came midway through the first period, when he was knocked to the ice in front of the net and Greg Adams' shot struck him and trickled across the goal line.

After Trottier's second goal made it 3-1, Gartner reduced the deficit with his 10th goal at 7:05 of the second period, as he lured Smith out to the right-wing circle and put a pinpoint shot into the empty net.

Jensen made some excellent stops late in the second period, and Washington came out for the final 20 minutes displaying both enthusiasm and offensive playmaking.

Smith made a superb move to his right to foil Bob Carpenter after a two-on-one with Christian; Gary Sampson missed the net on a Carpenter setup, and Haworth rattled a shot off the crossbar, with Adams unable to handle the rebound.

Christian finally tied it with 10:23 left. Adams' pass from behind the net struck the skate of New York's Denis Potvin and caromed right to Christian, who shot the puck over Smith's left shoulder.

"That's the first game I've been pleased with our club in the 10 we've played," said New York Coach Al Arbour. "I'm very pleased with our effort. We let up a bit in the third period and they came back, but instead of finding a way to lose, tonight we found a way to win."

Tempering the Islanders' happiness was a fractured rib suffered by defenseman Randy Boyd in a second-period collision with Haworth. New York played this game without six sick or injured regular players.

Of the check that caused the injury, Haworth said, "He tried to give me a hip check, and I stood up to him. I guess I was lower than he was and he got my shoulder in the rib cage."

Haworth was one of several Capitals to become involved with Smith, who was penalized for roughing when he punched Adams and high-sticking when he used a butt end on Adams' chin. The first penalty gave the Capitals a two-man advantage for 69 seconds, but they failed to take advantage.

"He always plays like that," Haworth said. "It's part of the game for him, and it frustrates us.