A one-goal victory counts just as much as a blowout. For the Washington Capitals, however, an occasional blowout would be easier on the nerves.

The Capitals built a three-goal lead over the New Jersey Devils in the first 25 minutes tonight, then had to call for the fire extinguishers before they were able to claim a 3-2 victory at Byrne Arena.

The Devils, who will make their first Capital Centre visit Saturday after losing two of three to Washington here, limited the Capitals to 19 shots, a seasonal low.

"We give every team a chance to get back in the game," said Bengt Gustafsson, who scored one goal and set up another. "It's just incredible. We start out playing so well and then everybody is doing something different and we let them come back."

Coach Bryan Murray was upset by the snooze, which has become commonplace in recent weeks.

"It's been happening on a fairly regular basis for the last month," Murray said. "We get a lead and we're content to hang on the rest of the game. If you sit back on any team and try to play defense for two periods, somebody will make a mistake and let them back in it. Pete (goalie Peeters) at the end had to make two or three excellent stops or we're playing overtime."

Mel Bridgman, a former teammate of Peeters at Philadelphia, scored twice in the second period and the Capitals had a struggle to stay ahead over the last 21 minutes.

In the final minute, after the Devils had pulled goalie Chico Resch for a sixth skater, Peeters eased the pressure by lofting the puck completely out of the zone. It seemed like a chance for a goaltender's impossible dream, a goal, but Peeters said nothing was farther from his mind as he sent the puck into center ice near the penalty box.

"They got it in early and I had a chance to play it," Peeters said. "During the game, I thought I made a lot of good clearing passes up high, but they were gloving them. The last one, I made sure I got it high enough. He jumped, but couldn't get it.

"To put it in the other net, I'd have to send it down the center of the ice and if I make a mistake there, I'm in real trouble."

Peeters might have experienced more trouble if the Devils had been a little luckier. Aaron Broten hit a post with the net vacated in the first period and he banged another shot off the crossbar in the second. Perry Anderson deflected a Kirk Muller pass off the crossbar in the first, leaving referee Bill McCreary in sufficient doubt that he stopped play and consulted the goal judge, who had not turned on the red light.

"I'd like to say that was all they had to shoot at," Peeters said with a laugh.

Gustafsson opened the scoring on a power-play rebound of a shot by Peter Andersson, making this the 21st straight game in which the Devils allowed an extra-man goal.

It became 2-0 on Dave Christian's 21st goal, as he netted a rebound of his own shot. Washington's Jorgen Pettersson began the play by knocking defender Dave Pichette off the puck in the left-wing corner and it went to Gustafsson, who made a superb spinning pass from behind the net to Christian at the left post.

Craig Laughlin's 11th goal made it 3-0 early in the second period. Darren Veitch fired from the right point and, after Resch made the save, Greg Adams whacked the puck to Laughlin deep in the left-wing circle. With Adams wiping out Resch, the net was empty for Laughlin.

"The puck hit my stick coming out and I thought it was going toward the net," Adams said. "I bumped into Chico and he thought I was just going for him, but I had no idea the puck had gone out toward Locker."

Bridgman batted down an attempted clear by Veitch and quickly sent a shot past Peeters to make it 3-1. Then he muscled his way inside to sink a rebound of a Peter McNab shot for his second goal.

"That's the same Mel Bridgman I played with in Philly, right on the doorstep and tough to move," Peeters said.

Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher sat out the first period, as punishment for missing the team's plane here from Washington this morning. He also was fined and Murray said he would not have played at all, except that Dwight Schofield could not skate because of a sore knee.

"We held a plane a couple of minutes for Kevin once before," Murray said. "He's a young guy out of junior who's used to sleeping all day and practicing at 4 o'clock, and he's going to have to change."

"I slept late and I got caught in traffic," said Hatcher, who also was whistled for two minor penalties. "It wasn't a great day."

After tonight's game, only three points separated the top five Washington scorers -- Alan Haworth (40 points), Laughlin and Mike Gartner (39 each), Christian (38) and Gustafsson (37).

"I was tied with Mike at the start of the season and I'm tied now," Laughlin said. "That will probably be it." Canadiens 7, Jets 3

In Winnipeg, third-period goals by Mike McPhee, Larry Robinson, Lucien DeBlois and Mats Naslund broke a 3-3 tie and gave Montreal the victory.

McPhee scored the game-winner at 2:59 on a 30-foot wrist shot after he was left unprotected at the top of the circle. At 7:54, Robinson moved in from the point to score on a 15-foot shot for Montreal's first power-play goal in four opportunities. Entering the game, Montreal led the league with a 34.7 percent scoring rate on power plays.

Naslund drew an assist on Robinson's goal to extend his points streak to 15 games, and closed out the scoring with his 27th goal of the season at 17:48. DeBlois scored his second goal of the game midway through the third period, and defenseman Peter Svoboda earned his third assist of the game.