After the meetings and tongue-lashings and the long practices, Washington Capitals Coach Bryan Murray kept reminding his players and himself of this: His hockey team is a good one, and it would still have a chance to prove it.

The Capitals did a little of that last night. Dave Christian scored two goals in the final five minutes, the last one with 90 seconds left, to provide a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens before 16,837 at Capital Centre.

His 24th goal of the season and second of the night completed a furious game that Washington apparently won, then blew, then won again, all in the final minutes. His 23rd goal had broken a 2-2 tie 15:47 into the period.

That appeared to be the game-winner until Montreal's Mats Naslund broke away at 18:04. But Christian scored again 26 seconds later, taking Scott Stevens' pass and beating Brian Hayward on a power play.

"We worked really, really hard and played awfully well," Murray said, apparently smiling for the first time in a week. "We had a misplay that let Naslund get away with their third goal, but that was a great play at the end {to win it}. Montreal is an excellent hockey team. They hold the puck and attack you."

He had blistered his team publicly and privately after Tuesday's loss to Winnipeg and said last night: "We played very well tonight, and that was part of my frustration. I knew we'd play well against Montreal and probably against Philadelphia {on Sunday}. We have to win these one-goal games in our own building, and we haven't been doing it."

Before last night, the Capitals were 3-5 in one-goal decisions at home. They got this one, thanks in part to Pete Peeters, who stopped 22 shots.

The victory is important because it comes three days after a loss and at a time when the Capitals are about to play 20 of their last 29 games against Patrick Division rivals. It moved them back over .500, to 23-22-6 and kept them in third place, four points behind Philadelphia and a point behind the New York Islanders.

"The intensity level and emotion was there tonight," Peeters said, "and it'll be like that for Philadelphia."

An indication of that emotion was that two of the least penalized NHL teams were whistled for 18 last night, although the Canadiens had a huge lead -- 43 minutes to 15. The last Montreal penalty came at 16:45 when Chris Chelios was called for misconduct, giving the Capitals a sixth and last power play.

Christian scored the game-winner on that and barely missed his third career hat trick. His apparent goal 3:03 into the first period was disallowed because referee Kerry Fraser said he kicked the puck in.

"I'm just happy I got another chance," Christian said. "I know the puck hit my skate, but I thought it hit my stick."

TV replays appeared to support Fraser, although Murray disagreed. Then, early in the second period, there was no doubt Fraser erred by allowing Brian Skrudland's goal. Replays showed it had been kicked in.

That goal tied the game, 1-1, after Kevin Hatcher's 12th goal had given Washington a 1-0 lead 18:26 into the first period. The Capitals got that one after wasting two power plays, including 52 seconds with a two-man advantage.

The Capitals got the lead back on a power-play goal 13:57 into the period, coming after Larry Trader was called for holding Peter Sundstrom at 12:12.

Christian missed a slap shot. Hayward knocked the puck out, and Mike Ridley, following the play on the opposite side, knocked it in.

Peeters had a terrific second period, stopping 12 shots. Of those stops, one was spectacular, coming at 15:20 on Larry Robinson's three-foot shot when Peeters was caught without his stick. The goal judge turned on the red light, but Fraser ruled that Peeters had stopped it.

That call became even more important when Guy Carbonneau tied the game 23 seconds into the third period.

The game-winner came after Stevens faked a slap shot from mid-ice. Christian slipped behind Robinson and cut toward the right post, where he took Stevens' pass in stride.

In Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky returned, getting four assists in the Oilers' 5-4 loss to the Flames. In East Rutherford, N.J., the Devils beat the Blackhawks, 3-2, in overtime. In Detroit, the Maple Leafs tied the Red Wings, 3-3. In Buffalo, the Islanders beat the Sabres, 5-2. Montreal 0 1 2 3 Washington 1 1 2 4

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Washington, Hatcher 12 (Gartner, Pivonka), 18:26. PENALTIES -- Robinson, Mon (tripping), 11:21; Carbonneau, Mon (slashing), 12:29; Hatcher, Was (high-sticking), 15:02.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- 2, Montreal, Skrudland 8 (Kordic, Naslund), 3:35. 3, Washington, Ridley 15 (Christian, Hatcher), 13:57 (pp). PENALTIES -- Smith, Mon (roughing), 8:15; Gould, Was (roughing), 8:15; Trader, Mon (holding), 12:12.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 4, Montreal, Carbonneau 13 (Dahlin, Gainey), :23. 5, Washington, Christian 23 (Hunter, Murphy), 15:47. 6, Montreal, Naslund 18 (Robinson), 18:04. 7, Washington, Christian 24 (Stevens, Hunter), 18:30 (pp).

PENALTIES -- Svoboda, Mon (holding), 1:14; Lalor, Mon, major (fighting), 4:24; Lemieux, Mon, double minor (slashing, roughing), 4:24; Adams, Was, major (fighting), 4:24; Hunter, Was (roughing), 4:24; Sundstrom, Was (hooking), 16:10; Gould, Was (high-sticking), 16:29; Walter, Mon (high-sticking), 16:29; Svoboda, Mon (holding), 16:45; Chelios, Mon, misconduct-game misconduct, 16:45.

Shots on goal: Montreal 3 13 9 25 Washington 8 7 15 30

Power-play Opportunities -- Montreal 0 of 2; Washington 2 of 6.

Goalies -- Montreal, Hayward (30 shots-26 saves). Washington, Peeters (25-22).

A -- 16,837.

Referee -- Kerry Fraser. Linesmen -- Pat Dapuzzo, Dan McCourt.