BOSTON, OCT. 8 -- Because of a long shift, the Washington Capitals came up short in their opener tonight, Cam Neely's goal with 2:05 left lifting the Boston Bruins to a 4-3 victory.

Neely converted a two-on-one pass from Geoff Courtnall as defenseman Larry Murphy, who had just jumped onto the ice, watched helplessly.

Murphy was replacing Greg Smith, the right-side defenseman across the ice who had trouble reaching the bench because of the Bruins' forechecking pressure. When the puck finally left the Washington zone and Smith headed off the ice, Ray Bourque quickly fired it back and Courtnall was able to set up Neely for the winner.

"We got caught in the corner in our end and I was very tired," said Smith, a Capitals standout over the last two periods when the Bruins were outshooting Washington by 28-10.

"I had just jumped on and I couldn't do a thing to help," Murphy said. "It worked perfect for them. The puck went right back to them and they moved it ahead very quickly."

Coach Bryan Murray was unhappy because the Bruins on several occasions mounted threatening rushes when the Capitals did not dump the puck properly before making a line change.

"In that case, they were tired at the end of a shift," Murray said. "We were in trouble a number of times because, instead of clearing the zone at the end of a shift, we tried to make one more pass and turned the puck over. It wasn't intentionally long shifts, it was a matter of getting trapped out there."

Any chance of a Capitals comeback evaporated 21 seconds later when Scott Stevens, the only man back on the winning rush, received a major penalty for whacking Courtnall in the face with a high stick.

Mike Gartner scored twice for Washington and Bob Sweeney netted a pair for Boston in an exciting, hard-hitting contest during which neither team was able to build more than a one-goal lead.

If victory or defeat came down to one incident in the third period, the Capitals could find other areas to place the blame for yet another failure to start off on the right skate.

Washington last won an opener in 1982, but tonight seemed a likely time to end that drought after Gartner opened the scoring 48 seconds into the game. A few seconds earlier, Boston goalie Reggie Lemelin had made a sensational left-right move to rob Greg Adams, as the Gartner-Adams-Dale Hunter line appeared in midseason form.

For the rest of the first period, Lemelin ("I'm glad I could help, because we were very jittery early") stood on his head, making multiple-rebound saves on both Michal Pivonka and Gartner as Washington built a 16-6 margin in shots. Besides those figures, the Capitals could reflect on misses by Lou Franceschetti and Gartner after weird bounces gave them point-blank opportunities.

"You only get so many chances," Gartner said. "You have to make a good percentage, because you seem to get less and less chances as the game goes on. We had a lot of chances in the first period and, when you don't get them, you find yourself in a hockey game."

The Bruins showed up a minute before the first period ended. With Franceschetti off for interference, Willi Plett deflected a shot by rookie Glen Wesley to tie the score.

With 14 seconds on the clock, Sweeney hit the left post at the finish of a three-on-two. Most of the net was open and goal judge Vic Rasmussen could be excused for thinking the puck would go in. Referee Don Koharski overruled him.

Less than two minutes into the second period, Sweeney scored a legitimate goal from the right-wing circle, lifting the puck over the left shoulder of goalie Clint Malarchuk.

"I should have put the first one away, and you always think about it," Sweeney said. "It was good to get it right back."

Sweeney's first goal also marked a total turn in the play, as Boston took control and stayed there most of the way. A key reason for the shift was the physical play of the Plett-Jay Miller-Billy O'Dwyer line.

"They worked very hard, they took the body very well and, if they keep that up, they could be a very good checking line," Murray said. "They generate a lot of enthusiasm in this building."

Smith temporarily quieted the 13,014 fans with a 45-footer that struck defender Gord Kluzak's stick and changed direction to beat Lemelin.

Midway through the third period, Sweeney gave Boston a 3-2 lead on his second rebound, after Malarchuk, in stopping an angled drive by Keith Crowder, allowed the puck to carom into the slot.

The Capitals got a break in tying the score once more with 7:05 left. Bengt Gustafsson, trying to feed Gartner from behind the Boston net, missed connections and the puck went all the way out to Rod Langway at the point. Langway shot and Gartner deflected it past Lemelin.

"In the long run, the breaks even out," Gustafsson said. Five minutes later, they did.

Capitals Notes:

Washington has signed goaltender Cleon Daskalakis and center Mike Richard. Both players will stay in Binghamton, where they had been practicing on a tryout basis . . . Bruins Hall of Famers Bobby Orr and Milt Schmidt were honored in a pregame ceremony . . . Schmidt, first general manager of the Capitals, is approaching 70 but retains his sense of humor: "It {guiding the expansion Capitals to an 11-95-10 start} was an experience that I'll never forget. If nothing else, they have to admit I got them some No. 1 draft picks" . . . Tickets are available for the Capitals' home opener Saturday against Chicago, which plans to start rookie Darren Pang in goal.