If the Adams Division is the National Hockey League's toughest, as so many experts claim, then the Washington Capitals must be tough, too.

The Capitals defeated the Adams leaders, the Montreal Canadiens, 3-2, last night before a sellout crowd of 18,130 at Capital Centre, leaving Washington unbeaten in nine meetings with Adams teams this season.

It was the Capitals' third straight victory and third straight sellout. They go for No. 4 in both categories tonight against the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers, with the sellout -- at least -- assured.

Pete Peeters, making his first appearance in two weeks, stopped 19 shots to beat the only NHL team that holds an edge against him (11-13-3).

Larry Murphy, Alan Haworth and Bengt Gustafsson produced the goals for Washington, which held a 3-1 advantage after two periods and clung to the lead despite being outshot, 7-2, over the final 20 minutes.

"We should have got a little more offense going in the third period, but they played well and took it to us," Murphy said. "Basically, it was a case of us hanging on."

After the Canadiens lifted goalie Doug Soetaert for a sixth skater with 40 seconds left, they kept the puck in the Washington zone until the buzzer. During that time, however, they did not put a shot on goal. Petr Svoboda came closest, sweeping the puck off the side of the net while he was on his knees in front.

Montreal's goals came on a power-play breakaway by rookie Kjell Dahlin in the first period and on a quick move out from behind the Washington net by Bobby Smith in the third. Otherwise, Peeters was outstanding in his first outing following a layoff because of a pulled stomach muscle.

"I felt good and the team played really well defensively," Peeters said. "They kept the shots at the perimeter, where it was easy to see them. And the forwards were coming down low, making the outlet passes. We really played as a team tonight.

"I've been sitting down with Warren (Strelow) and the other coaches since we came back from Minnesota and it's helped. They looked at videotapes and picked out some things I've been working on."

The Canadiens launched the first four shots of the game, then Washington assumed control. With Montreal's Chris Nilan off for high sticking, Murphy moved into the middle and fired a 55-footer past Soetaert, who was screened by Mike Gartner.

"That's a good play," Murphy said. "To start, we have two guys high. Then when we get control, we put one man in the middle. You get a better shot, because the two forwards don't stand in front of you. They're off to the side and you don't have to worry about the shot being blocked."

Haworth made it 2-0 on his 26th goal, after Greg Adams pulled the puck away from two Canadiens behind the Montreal goal line and swept it to Haworth in the slot.

"We should have had a couple more tonight," said Haworth, whose previous season high was 24. "The big thing was that our line played well, not only offensively but defensively, too. When you play against teams like that, it's good to be defensive. (Coach) Bryan (Murray) saw it, because he gave us a lot of ice time."

Montreal's power play, best in the NHL, halved the deficit before the first period ended. Dahlin took a headman pass from Mats Naslund and, racing behind defenders Scott Stevens and Darren Veitch, beat Peeters on the breakaway for his 26th goal.

Dahlin, the NHL's top rookie scorer, repeated the maneuver on Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher during a second-period power play, but that time Peeters made the stop.

Then it was breakaway time for Gustafsson, who outskated defenseman Tom Kurvers to the puck after Lou Franceschetti dumped it over the Montreal blueline. Gustafsson rapped it off Soetaert's pad and it popped into the net for his 17th goal.

The third period was ultraconservative. Neither team had a shot on goal until the six-minute mark and the Capitals' first attempt did not come until 10:45.

There was one memorable moment, however. Stevens upended Nilan with a solid open-ice check that drew an even louder roar when it was replayed on TelScreen than had greeted it initially.

"We probably panicked a bit in the third period and tried to get rid of the puck too soon instead of playing keepaway more," Haworth said. "I lost some faceoffs and they got control, which didn't help, either. But Montreal was playing very good hockey. They were only one point behind us and they were the team for tonight.

"We'll get up tomorrow morning and worry about Edmonton then."

The Capitals have won both their previous meetings with the Oilers. Edmonton's entire coaching staff watched from the press box last night and during a lengthy stretch of indecisive play at center ice, Coach Glen Sather said, "You won't see that kind of hockey tomorrow night." Canucks 5, Jets 2

Thomas Gradin's goal with 2:06 left in the second period broke a 2-2 tie as Vancouver won at home.

Patrik Sundstrom, Moe Lemay and Stan Smyl also scored for the Canucks, who are unbeaten in six games for the first time since March of 1983. Gradin also scored a third-period goal.

The victory, in the first game of a back-to-back series with Jets, lifted Vancouver into third place in the Smythe Division, one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and three ahead of the Jets.