Lou Franceschetti is the man who saved Christmas. At the least, he saved the Washington Capitals' Christmas party, which followed the 1-1 overtime tie with the St. Louis Blues yesterday at Capital Centre.

The Capitals were headed for a depressing 1-0 defeat when Franceschetti knocked in a rebound of Larry Murphy's shot with only 2 minutes 54 seconds left in regulation time.

There was other good news for the Capitals: center Mike Ridley should be back Jan. 5. He strained knee ligaments Friday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Franceschetti, meanwhile, scored his first goal of the season and it came on the Capitals' eighth power play, set up when the Blues' Herb Raglan pulled him down.

Until then, the script carried storybook qualities for St. Louis defenseman Paul Cavallini. Traded to the Blues by Washington nine days ago, he netted a shot from the top of the left-wing circle at 14:05 of the first period.

Blues goaltender Rick Wamsley, bidding for his second straight shutout, stopped the first 25 shots that came his way. Throw in a few off-target tries and post patterns and it looked like another frustrating loss for Washington.

For Franceschetti, a fourth-line winger who had taken 28 shots without positive result, it was a shock to find himself on the power play. Then to discover the puck at his feet and bang it home was the best Christmas present possible.

"For one thing, I was on the power play; I don't know what happened there," he said with a smile. "Larry Murphy shot and Wamsley left the rebound. It was just lying there and for me, it was just a matter of moving it a bit and shoving it in.

"I was getting to the point of where was I going to play next. I had to contribute, the way the team was going. The longer you go -- I was playing with no confidence at all."

Cavallini was involved in that goal, too, because Franceschetti had drifted behind him.

"Paul worried about the shot from the point and didn't worry about my stick," Franceschetti said. "I just capitalized on his mistake."

There are two sides to every story, however, and Cavallini explained: "I had two players in front of the net and I had to let Louie get behind me. I didn't want him to tie me up. But we've played four games in five days and a tie is real good for us."

The goal ended Wamsley's shutout streak at 126 minutes 46 seconds. With the tie, the Blues extended their unbeaten run to seven games and climbed within three points of first-place Detroit in the Norris Division.

Cavallini termed his third goal of the season "a New Year's present, because I got my Christmas present {the trade} last week." The score followed Washington goalie Pete Peeters' big save on Doug Gilmour's breakaway.

As he was falling, Gilmour reached out and swept the rebound clear of the slot. Cavallini controlled it and shot from the top of the left-wing circle.

"I just wanted to hit the net," he said. "I heard a player yelling at me to pass, but I saw an opening. I figured there would at least be a rebound. When it went in, I just felt great."

The Capitals felt otherwise for much of the afternoon and the boos of many of the 11,154 accompanied each of the first seven unsuccessful power plays.

"It would have been like the same old thing, frustrating like the Detroit game {a 1-0 loss Nov. 17}, to work hard and come up with nothing," said center Bob Gould, who at one time had all the Blues yapping at him after he knocked Gilmour against the boards in front of the bench. "It sure was nice to come out of it with one point."

As it was, the Blues almost pulled it out. One of their passes bounced crazily past Washington's Greg Smith with 10 seconds left and Perry Turnbull picked it up alone in the Capitals' end, to be whistled down for a two-line pass.

Asked what he was thinking when Turnbull got the puck, Smith said: "You couldn't print it." Then he added, "When I heard the whistle, I felt a big sigh of relief. I went down with my stick and my skate so it wouldn't get by, but it must have bounced a foot high."

Although the players on both teams were satisfied with the point, there were managerial exceptions.

General Manager Ron Caron of the Blues, in the press box, sent an assortment of signals, including a choke sign, to Matt Pavelich, the supervisor of officials, after Franceschetti scored. Caron screamed all day at Pavelich, whose only response was to say "The game's down there" and point to the ice when Caron told him to "watch the replay."

Then there was Capitals Coach Bryan Murray, who was asked about the upcoming trip to Quebec and Montreal and said: "I'll be glad to get out of here. Since you guys set me up, all I hear coming out of the crowd is 'Three more games, Murray, three more games.' "

It was, of course, General Manager David Poile who said he would be reevaluating the team's situation on Dec. 26, after the game against Philadelphia.