Loud music and laughter replaced whispers as the prevailing sounds coming from the Washington Capitals' locker room yesterday. Victory finally was in hand.

It took three weeks and all sorts of angst, but the Capitals ended their eight-game winless streak by defeating the New Jersey Devils, 4-3, in front of 16,229 at Capital Centre.

Coach Terry Murray rightly suggested the Devils are one of the NHL's top teams, but they have a habit of being there for key Capitals triumphs. In Murray's first game as coach, 350 days ago, the Capitals ended an eight-game losing streak by overcoming New Jersey, 9-6.

Washington then surprised much of the hockey world -- and maybe itself -- by knocking New Jersey out in the first round of the Patrick Division playoffs. There is probably as much coincidence as connection in that situation, but the Capitals aren't questioning fate.

"Things seem to happen for us against them," Capitals goalie Don Beaupre said. "It's tough to explain."

It is a bit eerie. Dino Ciccarelli, who had eight goals in that playoff series, scored the game-winner yesterday with 14:20 left in the third period. The puck went in after taking the strangest of bounces -- the sort of bounce that had gone the other way while the Capitals were going 0-7-1 in their previous eight.

John Druce scored twice (to end a 12-game drought), mainly by going to the net, which is how his star was launched against the Devils in the playoffs. Less tangible, but no less important, the defense and team as a whole cut down on giveaways, errant passes and general foul-ups.

"The dancers danced, the goal scorers scored and the checkers checked," Murray said of a return to roles aided by two days of practice.

Though the victory over the Devils (who had not lost since Dec. 13) provided a bit of relief, the Capitals remain closer to last place than first in the division.

As Mike Lalor said: "We're not out of anything by any means. We've still got to get back to playing 60 minutes."

The Capitals also may have lost center Peter Zezel with another injury to his beleaguered left ankle.

Washington took a 1-0 advantage on a goal by Nick Kypreos, only to see the Devils forge ahead on goals by Claude Lemieux and Kirk Muller. Druce scored twice in the second period to regain the lead for the Capitals, only to see it evaporate on the strength of a 75-foot slap shot by Lee Norwood just before the second intermission.

Before yesterday, the Capitals had been 3-21 when entering the third period tied or trailing, but they stayed with their game plan yesterday and didn't panic. They applied pressure with their forecheckers, kept shooting (a 34-19 edge in shots on goal) and made the simple plays in their end.

Then, after missing on a pass from Mikhail Tatarinov, Ciccarelli took a second shot that hit the side of the net, struck goalie Chris Terreri's right skate and left pad and trickled over the goal line.

"They were coming hard, especially in the first period, and did it again some in the third," Norwood said of the Capitals' forecheckers. "We made a few mistakes and they got a few bounces."

After taking a pass from Mike Ridley, Kypreos put a nearly perfect shot into the top corner for the first goal 7:36 into the game.

Beaupre, whose goals-against average has been excellent despite a personal seven-game winless streak, made a great stop on John MacLean early. But later in the period, Beaupre lost his stick and Lemieux came around the net and slipped the puck past for a tie.

"He put it in the right spot, right at my feet," Beaupre said.

Given too much room in the slot, Muller scored for a 2-1 lead after one period.

The Devils hate Dale Hunter for a lot of reasons. One is that he wins faceoffs. Kevin Hatcher collected one of Hunter's efforts and flipped the puck to the net. Druce deflected it in out of the air, although at first the goal was awarded to Hatcher.

"I knew it hit my stick, but I didn't want to say anything," said Druce, who didn't have to as Hatcher came to him and then fixed it with officials.

With Hunter being a distraction in front, Druce followed up his own rebound to score for a 3-2 lead. But then Norwood beat Beaupre with that long-distance slap shot for another tie.

But Beaupre stopped Lemieux on a semi-breakaway early in the third period and Ciccarelli scored about two minutes later.

"If you lose a lead like that, it can be really deflating," Beaupre said. "Now, we can just go out and play and leave that segment behind us."

Maple Leafs 7, Moscow Dynamo 4:

Kevin Maguire and Dave Hannan scored 11 seconds apart to start a five-goal third period as host Toronto rallied to win the first game of the defending Soviet League champion's seven-game tour.

The Leafs trailed by 4-2 until Maguire tipped in Dave Reid's pass at 9:06 and Hannan slammed home another pass from Reid to tie the game.

Vince Damphousse put Toronto ahead at 11:30, firing in a 10-foot wrist shot off a rebound. Daniel Marois added an insurance at 15:12 and Al Iafrate concluded the scoring on a power play at 17:10.

Dmitri Filimonov, with two goals, Alexander Semak and Igor Dorofeyev scored for Dynamo.