What started out as a horrible day for the Washington Capitals brightened considerably tonight.

The Capitals have faced Buffalo goaltender Jacques Cloutier only once and he beat them. Nevertheless, they owe the 5-foot-7 acrobat a vote of thanks, because he turned in his first National Hockey League shutout tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Gil Perreault's first-period goal stood up behind Cloutier's 30-save effort, as an injury-riddled Buffalo defense did what it could to help out in a tense 1-0 triumph.

It was the first time the Flyers were shut out since Washington's Pat Riggin did it Dec. 26, 1984, and it was their first zero here since Boston's Marco Baron did it Feb. 21, 1982.

As a result, Washington retained its one-point lead over the Flyers in the Patrick Division and has an extra game to play. Assuming the Capitals win their next five -- quite an assumption considering the opposition -- they would finish first without the necessity of beating the Flyers here April 6.

Flyers Coach Mike Keenan said: "Now we have to rely on someone else to beat them before we play them in game 80. But anything's possible at this point. They have to play the Islanders tomorrow and they're in Hartford Saturday. Who knows?"

Keenan has good reason to know Cloutier. The little goalie played for him on a Calder Cup championship team in Rochester and only a succession of injuries has kept him from major-league status in the past.

"Tommy Barrasso, Sabres No. 1 goalie is pretty tired and he was going down a lot," said Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman. "This guy's a good goalie -- he beat Edmonton at home. We wanted to do something that might spark the team and while we certainly didn't expect a shutout, this might be something we can build on."

If it was a big game for Washington, faced with finishing the regular schedule without right wing Mike Gartner, it was vital to Buffalo, too. The Sabres climbed out of the Adams Division cellar, one point ahead of Hartford, and Bowman smiled and said: "Now it's up to the Capitals to help us out on Saturday."

Bob Froese, the NHL's leading goaltender, was knocked out for the second straight game and replaced by Chico Resch. Unlike Sunday at Capital Centre, however, the reason was physical. Froese was struck in the throat by a drive off Paul Cyr's stick and had to leave at 10:41 of the first period.

Froese was treated throughout the second period, sat on the bench during the third and then left for hospital examination.

"His neck was swelling like a golf ball," Resch said. "It was scary."

Resch was beaten on the first shot he faced, a 40-footer down the slot that went between his legs and made Perreault a 20-goal scorer for the 15th time in 16 NHL seasons.

"That shot was one of those things that dipped," Resch said. "It was bouncy. I didn't feel very comfortable getting thrown in there like that."

The Sabres have not lost in their last five Spectrum visits and have handed the Flyers two of their six home defeats this season. Still, it seemed that it was just a matter of time until Philadelphia pulled even.

Probably Cloutier's best stop came with 4:22 left. After blocking a point drive by Doug Crossman, he slid left to deflect Tim Kerr's rapid-fire rebound. Twenty seconds later, Dave Poulin deflected Brad Marsh's shot wide. Then, with seven seconds remaining, Cloutier blocked a backhander by Poulin.

"Cloutier handled the puck exceptionally well," Keenan said. "I told our team to keep the puck away from him. He's quick with the stick, he has a good glove hand and he moves the puck well."

Said Cloutier: "It's always good to beat your old coach, but I try to do my best all the time and tonight the big thing was to win the game.

"My quickness was the best part of my game. I was challenging the shooters very well tonight. It's not easy when you don't play for a year, and I came from a long way. I hope I can keep it up."

*Devils 1, Blues 0: Greg Adams broke a scoreless tie with 2:18 remaining and goalie Sam St. Laurent earned a shutout in his first NHL start to defeat St. Louis in East Rutherford, N.J.

St. Laurent, who previously had played eight NHL minutes, stopped 31 shots. He had arrived earlier in the day from Maine of the American Hockey League.

The Blues were serving a penalty for too many men on the ice when Adams ended their shutout string of 128:14. He controlled the puck behind the net, skated out and beat goalie Rick Wamsley to the left post. Adams' goal extended his own club record for goals in a season to 35.

The Blues were prevented from tying Chicago for the Norris Division lead.

*Canadiens 3, Bruins 3: Bob Gainey tapped in a rebound of Guy Carbonneau's soft shot at 5:59 of the third period, giving Montreal a tie in Boston and ending the Canadiens' six-game losing streak.

Montreal retained sole possession of second place in the Adams Division race with 81 points. Boston has 79, Buffalo 78 and Hartford 77.

The Bruins had the only two shots of overtime. The better shot was Ray Bourque's 30-footer that hit the post to goalie Patrick Roy's right.

Boston is 2-3-11 in overtime games, Montreal is 1-6-7.

Gainey tied the score when he got his stick on the puck and pushed it by Boston goalie Pat Riggin after Riggin stopped Carbonneau's 25-foot shot.