One well-placed slap shot, one furious pounding of the stick, can make 12,000 fans sound like 20,000. It can make rookies feel like veterans. It can inspire a team to believe it is never out of a game, that the third period belongs to them.

Each time Washington Capitals sniper Peter Bondra raised his stick and cocked his shoulders in the third period last night, momentum seemed to switch instantly. Bondra pumped two wicked slap shots into the net just 58 seconds apart, both in the waning minutes, capping an improbable comeback win for a team that has oozed spunk and an endearing spirit in this young season. This time the Capitals knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-4, before 11,574 at MCI Center, leaving their opponent winless in four games.

The Capitals (2-1-1) came back from a two-goal deficit, went up 3-2, fell behind 4-3 and battled back for the win when Bondra capped his 14th career hat trick with less than three minutes to play. Saturday night the Capitals erased a two-goal, third-period deficit to earn a tie with Los Angeles. They have yielded the opening goal in all four games this season, yet outscored opponents 5-0 in the third period. They did not manage a third-period comeback all of last season.

"With our speed we don't ever feel like we're out of the game at any time," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Right now we've got the young guys playing extremely well and we're building some confidence."

Some wondered about Bondra's confidence after he slipped from 52 to 31 goals last season, but he has five goals in four games this year. However, he and center Adam Oates haven't clicked as planned, and with seven minutes left Wilson put Bondra with Andrei Nikolishin and Steve Konowalchuk. They scored on their first two shifts. Bondra tied the game at 4 with a bullet from a near-impossible angle, handcuffing goalie John Vanbiesbrouck's glove hand as he had earlier in the game.

Bondra capped the hat trick with 2 minutes 57 seconds to play. Nikolishin made a great move at the blue line, drawing both defensemen before leaving a perfect drop pass. Wilson was whistling on the bench, hoping to alert the winger to the play, but he didn't have to. Bondra already was focused on one thing, and one thing only: Shoot the puck.

"I just cranked it," Bondra said. "It was from a tough angle and I didn't even have time to think. You can't be afraid to shoot the puck."

The Capitals might not have needed such last-minute heroics had they played with discipline and stayed out of the penalty box. The Flyers scored on three of their first four power plays, while Washington's hot power-play units did not get a chance to hit the ice until the third period. The Capitals have killed off just 13 of 20 power plays this season--an awful rate.

"It's all about getting the puck down the ice," Wilson said. "And we didn't do that."

Flyers rookie Simon Gagne netted his first two NHL goals to open the scoring, finding the back of the net twice in the first 4:31. The defense gave goalie Olaf Kolzig little chance on either play. A Philadelphia team that produced one goal in its first three games (183 minutes) doubled that in less than five minutes.

Washington was scrambling when center Jan Bulis, who already has five points this season, got the home team back in the game. He sent the puck to the net about seven minutes in and Konowalchuk buried it on the Capitals' first shot. Bulis made an uncanny feed to Richard Zednik on a two-on-one and Zednik, the most unlucky of Washington's forwards so far this season, blasted a one-timer to tie the game about 10 minutes in. Bondra scored the first of his trio with 4:26 left in the first period--the Capitals' third goal on just four shots.

The Capitals played strong at even strength, but negating that effort with ill-timed penalties. Valeri Zelepukin tied the game at three by stuffing in a puck on the power play and Mark Recchi (four assists) set up the go-ahead goal, which Eric Lindros finished late in the second period. All of it provided just the setup Bondra needed.

"Every time he shoots, he has a chance to score," Flyers Coach Roger Neilson said.

Truer words were never spoken.