Capitals 5, Maple Leafs 4

Peter Bondra glided into the corner of the ice at MCI Center, dropped one glove and lifted three fingers to his head, saluting the only fans he has known during his 11-year NHL career. Bondra was not mimicking the "W" gesture of President Bush, he was merely lost in the joy of having scored his third goal of the game on one of the more memorable days of his life.

Bondra notched his franchise-best 16th career hat trick last night, leading the Washington Capitals to a 5-4 defeat of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But he was even more elated by what transpired a few hours before the opening faceoff, when he signed a contract extension for at least two more seasons; the Capitals have club options for the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 seasons.

"I remember my first game here, and I was maybe a little more nervous tonight," Bondra said. "I had butterflies in my stomach, like I was thinking about it too much. I wanted to make sure we win and make sure everything goes right tonight."

Bondra enters the all-star break leading the team with 30 goals -- twice the production of any teammate -- and 55 points in 53 games. Washington (24-19-9-1) enters the break five games over .500, matching its season best, and Bondra -- who asked for a trade last summer before inquiring about an extension in December -- is responsible for much of that success.

Bondra scored three times in the second period last night, and the Capitals' defense lagged, consistently letting Toronto back in the game. Washington led 1-0 after one period, though it could have put away the game.

Only Toronto goalie Curtis Joseph prevented a blowout, playing like an octopus, his arms and legs everywhere. The Capitals, who do not play at home again until Feb. 21, took 14 shots in the period, but only Richard Zednik scored. Bondra netted his first of the game early in the second period. Andrei Nikolishin won a faceoff back to Sergei Gonchar (three assists), and Bondra alertly deflected the defenseman's shot.

"You could see after he signed the deal he was so excited," Gonchar said. "He was flying all over the ice."

That goal, however, was followed by the first of Washington's countless breakdowns during its horrid defensive effort. Jonas Hoglund knocked Nikolishin off the puck in the defensive zone and quickly made it 2-1. Midway through the game, the score was tied; Capitals defenseman Sylvain Cote let a rebound slip past his stick and between his legs. Shayne Corson was all alone to bang it in.

"I thought we were awful defensively," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "We've got to be better than that."

Bondra followed that setback by erupting for two goals in a 2 minute 20 second span, single-handedly putting his club back in command. He scored with power and grace. Bondra, who has 18 goals and 27 points in the last 20 games, ripped a vicious one-timer past Joseph on the power play, then made it 4-2 by taking Nikolishin's pass at the blueline, using Toronto defenseman Dimitri Yushkevich as a screen and aiming a perfectly placed shot into the far corner.

"He found some room tonight and showed he's a heck of a hockey player," Toronto Coach Pat Quinn said. "We didn't pick him up; we didn't make it a rough time for him."

Bondra, who was invited to be an injury replacement at this weekend's All-Star Game but declined to fulfill a commitment to take his family to Disney World, had barely finished his hat trick celebration when Toronto answered once more -- defense Ken Klee did not put his body on Alexei Ponikarovsky and slipped the puck into a vacant side of the net, making it 4-3 just 34 seconds later. Klee slammed his stick at the net in disgust, but his teammates rallied again.

Dmitri Khristich, who was booed out of Toronto leading to his trade here, popped in a rebound on the power play less than a minute after Klee's mistake, and the Capitals again had a two-goal cushion. Washington remained dreadfully soft around the net, and Toronto captain Mats Sundin scored off a rebound to make it 5-4 early in the third period. Goaltender Olaf Kolzig had to be brilliant to protect the lead, a lead built by Bondra.

"With all the things that happened in the beginning of the season, a lot of us were probably a little down on him," Kolzig said. "But he's handled himself as a professional, and he's gone out and played hard every night. I think tonight was his exclamation point."

Capitals Notes: The Capitals acquired minor league enforcer Brantt Myhres from Nashville for future considerations. Myhres, 26, was assigned to Portland. The Capitals recently traded little used enforcer Craig Berube, and top tough guy prospect Stephen Peat is injured. . . . Defenseman Rob Zettler and Dmitri Mironov (back strain) were scratched. Center Jan Bulis missed the game because of the flu. . . . Defenseman Calle Johansson scored his 500th career point.

"I remember my first game here, and I was maybe a little more nervous tonight," Peter Bondra said.Left with little defensive help, Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig had to be perfect late in the game to protect Washington's lead against Toronto at MCI Center.