Goaltender Pete Peeters' debut with the Washington Capitals last night turned out to be more dramatic than either he or the team desired.

Peeters was forced to leave a one-goal game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with 35 seconds remaining when cramps in his legs became unbearable. His new teammates prevented Pittsburgh from putting a shot on reliever Al Jensen, however, and the Capitals won, 4-3.

"I hate to put Al in a spot like that, a one-goal difference and 35 seconds left," Peeters said. "I apologize to him, but I was hurting awful bad."

Peeters has experienced similar problems in the past and the Capital Centre heat figures to increase his discomfort, unless some solution is found.

"They say maybe they'll check my blood to see if I'm lacking some minerals," Peeters said. "If they can give me something to take care of it, it'll make me very happy.

"I can lose up to 10 pounds of water a game. I try to drink a lot of fluids before the game, and in Boston I tried quinine sulphate and mineral supplements.

"When they (cramps) hit, it's like the guy in the movies running down the street with pumps going in his arm. It starts down low, goes through the shins and hits the knees, then when it gets up to the hamstrings, it really hurts."

Mike Gartner has been hurting, too, with back problems so severe that he considered sitting out a few games. But he is healthy now, as he demonstrated with a pair of second-period goals that helped Washington build a 3-0 lead. Gartner has 13 for the season.

"Now that I feel pretty good, I don't mind talking about it," said Gartner, who previously had minimized his difficulties. "My back was causing me a lot of problems and I wasn't playing my game.

"From the time I got hit (in Calgary on Oct. 23), for two or three weeks it got progressively worse. I had a meeting with (General Manager) David (Poile) and (Coach) Bryan (Murray) and I considered taking a couple of weeks off.

"I didn't practice a lot and we had some stretches where we had time off. That helped. I was kind of playing the fringes a bit. When you're hurting, you don't want to get hit, because it's a long season. If it was the playoffs, that'd be different."

Rod Langway assisted on both of Gartner's goals and also played a flawless defensive game. Dave Christian and Larry Murphy scored the other Washington goals, giving Christian 10 in the last 12 games and Murphy five in the last six.

"When you get on a roll, things seem to go well," said Murphy, who has been on an offensive tear since a week's layoff with a broken foot. "My foot is still sore, but I feel I'm skating well and I'm getting up in the play well. Late in the game, I start to feel it a bit, but I try not to think about it."

Murphy made it 4-1 at the midpoint of the third period and Washington seemed home free. But Peeters was beginning to feel the pain and Mike Bullard banged one off his stick into the net with 8:13 left.

It became 4-3 with 35 seconds left when Willy Lindstrom from behind the net fed Dave Hannan in front. Peeters did a split to try to block Hannan's shot and didn't get up.

After Jensen took over, the Penguins replaced their goalie, Denis Herron, with a sixth skater. They did not get the puck in the Capitals' zone until only 17 seconds remained and it was quickly banged out, so Jensen never had to face a shot.

In that respect, the last few seconds resembled the first 13 minutes. It took that long for Peeters to make his first save as a Capital.

"It was going through my head that they don't really need a goaltender here," Peeters said. "I'm really excited about playing here. I can't believe how great it was to play behind that defense. And the way they come back and forecheck. They hardly ever make a mistake."

The Capitals, unbeaten in their last 15 meetings with the Penguins, will try to make it 16 tonight in Pittsburgh.