Dave Christian lined his second goal of the game into an empty net with 32 seconds left last night, assuring that the Washington Capitals could celebrate a seven-game unbeaten streak and sending a Capital Centre crowd of 13,070 homeward in a holiday mood.

The Capitals' 5-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens proved far more tense than it might have been, considering Washington's 4-1 advantage and near total dominance after two periods.

Montreal scored twice in the first nine minutes of the third period and, with goaltender Patrick Roy turning in some sensational saves, there was clear danger that this one might get away.

But Al Jensen, the Washington goalie, guaranteed that his 27th birthday observance would be a pleasant one by making back-to-back saves on Mats Naslund and Rick Green with 4 1/2 minutes left, setting the stage for Christian's clincher.

"We started standing around in the third period and let them get back in it," Christian said. "The guy (Roy) made some big saves, and it was a good feeling to clinch the game and let everybody relax."

"I had to call the cops a couple of times, the way he robbed me," said Mike Gartner, who scored his 15th goal but was foiled on three third-period breakaways. "I was trying to get him to make the first move, but he stayed in there on me."

Goals by Christian and Alan Haworth gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead after a tight-checking first period in which they outshot Montreal, 8-6. Brian Skrudland scored for the visitors.

Bengt Gustafsson was the catalyst in Christian's opening goal, and the assist by the Swede gave him at least one in nine straight games, erasing Ryan Walter's club record.

Walter, who put a string of eight together in 1980-81, was on the other side last night -- though, on reverse sweater promotion night, the Canadiens wore home white and the Capitals their road red -- and Gustafsson victimized him in the process. Gustafsson grabbed the puck behind the Montreal goal line, regained possession after Walter momentarily took it away and ducked a check by another ex-Capital, Green.

Gustafsson then slid the puck out to Christian, who lined a 25-foot shot past Roy's stick. It was Christian's 12th goal. Gustafsson has at least one point in the last 14 games he has played.

The score came at 6:41 and 20 seconds later the teams were even. Skrudland's second goal this season came as he deflected Chris Chelios' shot from the right point past Jensen.

Haworth regained the lead for Washington at 12:44. He started to carry the puck across the Canadiens' blueline, and defenseman Petr Svoboda tried to poke it back out. Instead, the puck struck Haworth's skate and his momentum carried him behind the Montreal defense, from where he rifled a shot past Roy's glove.

It was Haworth's 12th goal and his first in five games, since his nine-game goal-scoring streak ended against Vancouver Nov. 15.

There were some resounding checks in the period, Washington's Rod Langway setting the tone by flattening Chris Nilan on the first shift. Walter delivered a solid hit to Capital Darren Veitch and Gustafsson caught Green off balance and decked him.

The play opened up in the second period, to Washington's benefit. Bob Carpenter and Gartner connected as the Capitals opened a 4-1 margin.

Both goals were scored with Carpenter on the ice.

On the first, Roy blocked Gartner's shot from the right wing circle and the puck went to Bob Gould on the other side. Carpenter, cutting for the net, was hauled down by Chelios and Gould's backhanded rebound struck him and caromed past Roy at the 27-second mark.

On the second, Carpenter was dumped in the slot by Craig Ludwig. As he was falling, Carpenter managed to shove the puck toward Gartner, alone in front of Roy. Gartner held the puck until the goalie committed himself, then shot it past him for his 15th goal at 5:39.

Jensen stopped all nine Montreal shots, including a superb save on Bobby Smith at the finish of a two-on-one with Kjell Dahlin.

There were no penalties in the period, although the crowd wanted one on Walter when he pulled down Gustafsson and banged Carpenter with his stick during the same shift.

The Capitals, after checking superbly for two periods, let down their guard early in the third. Jensen made three excellent saves before Dahlin converted Smith's pass from behind the net at 5:05. It was No. 12 for the Swedish rookie.

Langway was struck in the face by Naslund's stick as Dahlin shot. Langway left for treatment, but missed only one shift. While he was off, the customers lustily cheered Scott Stevens for breaking up a two-on-one. This was Stevens' first game back after missing seven because of a bruised knee.

Gould went off for hooking Guy Carbonneau and Montreal's top-ranked power play took advantage at 8:05 to close the gap to 4-3. Lucien DeBlois, in his first action after a six-week layoff with a knee injury, deflected Chelios' shot from the blueline.

Things were tense as Roy made three sensational saves, two on Gartner breakaways and another on Christian. Then, as the clock wound down to four minutes, Jensen foiled Naslund and Green seconds apart.