LANDOVER, Md. (AP) _ Steve Leach scored a disputed goal early in the third period and the Washington Capitals held on for a 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils Sunday.

The victory lifted Washington into a tie with New Jersey for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Patrick Division, one point ahead of the idle Philadelphia Flyers.

The Capitals, who had lost four of their last nine games in which they were tied or leading in the final period, took a 4-2 lead with 12:31 remaining on Leach's 18th goal of the season.

Leach took the puck away from the Devils' Brendan Shanahan and flipped a bad-angle shot into goalie Sean Burke, whose momentum took him back into the net. Burke argued with referee Denis Morel that he had smothered the puck outside the goal line, but Morel disagreed.

Jon Morris scored a power-play goal with just over seven minutes left to pull New Jersey to 4-3.

Dino Ciccarelli and Yvon Corriveau gave Washington a 2-0 lead in the game's first 12 minutes.

Ciccarelli converted a 2-on-1 break with teammate Mike Ridley, while Corriveau, who has scored five of his 23 career NHL goals against New Jersey, chipped in a Ridley rebound with just one hand on his stick.

The Devils cut the lead when Bob Brooke took a lead pass from Alexei Kasatonov behind the Washington defense and beat goalie Don Beaupre high to the stick side at 17:34.

The teams traded goals in the second period, with Geoff Courtnall scoring his 30th of the season for Washington at 5:13 and Kirk Muller replying for New Jersey five minutes later.

Muller's unassisted goal was knocked into the net off the stick of Caps' winger Steve Leach.

According to Beaupre, the Capitals' strong third period effort was the direct result of an emotional team meeting held after practice Saturday.

''Sometimes you don't know you have a problem until you admit you have a problem,'' said Beaupre, who finished with 28 saves. ''We got together and decided we have a problem. Now, we can start working toward solving it.''

They took a major step in that direction Sunday.

Instead of laying back and trying to protect a slim lead for the final 20 minutes, as the Caps have done unsuccessfully in seven of their 10 losses since Terry Murray took over as coach Jan. 16, they attacked the Devils in hopes of increasing the margin.

And the strategy worked, as Leach cashed in after catching Shanahan and the Devils in the middle of a line change.

''We talked about going out and getting the next goal instead of waiting for them to come at us,'' Leach said. ''They were making a change and that got me in on (Burke) pretty much alone.

''I made a move, but he's got a pretty good glove,'' Leach added. ''I think at first it bounced around like a ping pong ball before it went over the line.''

That's the way Morel saw it. Burke, who refused to discuss the play afterward, didn't happen to agree.

The New Jersey goalie charged the referee and argued the call before finally being restrained by linesman Gord Broseker.

''It looked like Sean was there,'' Devils Coach John Cunniff said. ''But I don't know if it was over the line.''