TORONTO, DEC. 15 -- Toronto's Russ Courtnall scored twice tonight before the Washington Capitals launched a shot. The Maple Leafs went on to win, 5-3, and left the Capitals talking to themselves.

While Coach Bryan Murray patiently answered media questions afterward, the players met briefly behind the closed dressing-room door.

"We talked about putting on the uniform with pride each night, respecting each other, not letting the guy next to you down and working as a 20-man unit, not as individuals," said Pete Peeters, the losing goalie.

"This should be the best time of our lives. We're all making six-figure salaries and we're living pretty good. We figure we'd better start carrying the load or things might start to happen. That certainly was brought up in our meeting."

Mike Gartner, whose goal with 52 seconds remaining brought Washington within 4-3, also talked about the possibility of change. Although General Manager David Poile has not made any threats in that area, it is obvious the Capitals are going nowhere (now 13-15-2 and fifth in the Patrick Division)) after a 5-2 start that had everyone thinking first place.

"We have to realize we have to get things going or changes will be made," Gartner said. "This is not acceptable to management and not acceptable to the players -- playing this type of hockey; playing for half of a hockey game.

"We'd better start by playing 60 minutes instead of 20 or 30. That would be a good start. The thing is that we have a veteran-type hockey team and it's like we're intending to play only as good as we have to play. When we're backed against the wall, two goals down, then we play. But you can't do that, always be playing two goals down."

Courtnall scored on the first shot of the game, after Mike Ridley missed the net on a good setup at the other end. He connected again on the Maple Leafs' seventh try, a power-play goal with Bob Gould off for interference.

Dale Hunter, battling gamely for position in front despite a severely bruised buttock, deflected a Garry Galley shot for the first of two power-play goals by Washington.

But Hunter played sparingly thereafter and said, "It was more stiff than anything. They were always cross-checking me in the back, but it was the stiffness that was the problem."

Peter Ihnacak made it 3-1 before the first period ended. He took Mark Osborne's pass low in the slot, held the puck while Peeters went down and then skated to his right and hit the empty net.

Two plays early in the second period highlighted the Capitals' problems and expanded the Maple Leafs' margin to 4-1.

First, Scott Stevens lifted the puck from Gary Leeman and fed Gartner alone in front. Gartner had a lot of time to shoot, but not as much as he took. After a long exchange of stares between Gartner and goalie Allan Bester, Ihnacak knocked Gartner off the puck.

Not long after, Tom Fergus set up Miroslav Frycer, also unguarded in the slot. Frycer quickly whipped it past Peeters.

Later in the period, the puck struck the side boards and caromed to Washington's Dave Christian, alone near the left post. Christian's shot hit the side of the net.

"As bad as we played in the second period, we had two guys open in front and didn't get a play on the net," Murray said. "The way we've been playing, our situation {in the Patrick Division} worries me a great deal. We're so inconsistent."

Backs to the wall, the Capitals battled back in the third period. Christian netted his 14th goal at 6:21, on a rebound of a shot by Galley, to close to 4-2. It was another power-play goal, as Frycer served the first of two minors for high-sticking Bengt Gustafsson.

The Maple Leafs killed off Frycer's second sentence, then Gartner took a pass from Christian and shattered his stick on a point-blank shot that careened wide right.

"It flew off the end of the stick and felt like I was holding spaghetti," Gartner said.

Gartner made up for it with 52 seconds left, controlling a bouncing puck and batting it past Bester for his 18th goal. Washington, however, did not launch another shot before Ed Olczyk deposited the clincher into an empty net with nine seconds remaining.

Larry Murphy dumped the puck with 25 seconds left and Peeters headed for the bench, but he fell and Kelly Miller stepped on the ice before Peeters got off, bringing a whistle and a faceoff at center ice.

Capitals Notes:

Washington has scored at least one power-play goal in 12 straight games . . . Wednesday, Washington will visit Detroit, which is winless in its last five.