Only five seconds remained last night when Phil Esposito became a 40-goal scorer for the eighth time, lifting the New York Rangers into a 2-2 tie with the Washington Capitals. Few in the Capital Centre crowd of 8,573 saw any reason to celebrate.

Instead, most undoubtedly agreed with Washington defenseman Leif Svensson, who said, "Isn't that a shame? Everybody's talking how we play better on the road and this would have been so nice to win for our fans."

It would have been especially nice for Svensson, chosen the game's No. 1 star for a magnificent defensive effort in addition to the goal that sent Washington in front with 10:03 remaining.

With 1:16 left, however, Washington's Rick Green was penalized for holding Don Murdoch, a call that both Green and Coach Danny Belisle disputed. When the Rangers subsequently yanked goalie Doug Soetaert for a sixth skater, they, in effect, had a two-man advantage.

Washington goalie Jim Bedard and companions survived several panicbutton sessions before Don Maloney swept down a suddenly wide-open right wing. He fed the puck into the slot, and Bedard blocked a shot by Anders Hedberg before Esposito netted the rebound.

"It was a real thrill for me," said Esposito, unjaded despite having scored 673 goals before. "In hockey, when you pull the goaltender and tie it, it's got to be a thrill."

Of all the people to be the spoilsport, Capital fans could hardly have found one less palatable than Esposito, the target of boos and handkerchiefs here for several seasons. That made Esposito even happier.

"The fans always give it to me here in Washington, but I don't care as long as they come," Esposito said. "I hope 5,000 more come so they can boo me. For me to get the goal, that has to add to it. I'm just glad somebody got it. In our division, we need every point we can get."

With the Rangers trying to create some breathing space between themselves and Atlanta and Philadelphia, and with Washington trying to leave a minty taste in the mouths of its fans, this was a marvelous hockey game.

Both teams checked hard and often, and the Rangers were able to get only two shots on goal in the first 16 minutes, 22 for the game.

The hard checking, however, was not without its unfortunate result, as Washington's leading goal scorer, Tom Rowe, was decked by New York's Dave Farrish in the first period and suffered an injury of some severity to his left knee. After trying one more shift, Rowe departed and will be examined today, while the Capitals fly to Pittsburgh for a 7:30 (WDCA-TV-20) date with the Penguins.

"There's a space between the muscles, so it doesn't look good," Rowe said. "I got hit on the inside of the knee and it really rocked me."

Bob Sirois sent the Capitals in front with his 29th goal after 45 seconds of the second period, while New York's captain, Dave Maloney, was serving one of his five minor penalties. Sirois netted a rebound of a blue-line blast by Robert Picard.

Washington again had the extra man when Dave Maloney tied it, sweeping down the left side past point man Guy Charron and into the crease, where he shoved the puck past Bedard while the goalie was on his back. It was the seventh shorthanded goal yielded by the Capitals.

Svensson's second NHL goal came as he broke down the left wing and took Sirois' perfect pass. Svensson then cut into the slot and backhanded the puck past Soetaert.

"I got burned a couple of times early in the season, so I haven't been taking many rushes," Svensson said. "That time I felt safe, if I didn't get a pass I had a chance to come back."

Chuck Arnason had two chances to wrap it up for Washington, but each time Soetaert came up big.First he rolled over to prevent Arnason from lifting the puck on a breakaway, then he gloved Arnason's drive from the slot,

Green was penalized by referee Dave Newell while the Capitals were under heavy fire from the Rangers. He was trying to push Murdoch away from the crease and Murdoch was resisting. They both fell. Green insisting that "we were both tied up in front and we both went down. It was a real cheap call with 1:16 left and you might know they'd score on it."

"They both tangled up and fell to the ice," Belisle said. "What does he want them to do? I the last minute of a 2-1 game, it has to be a good penalty. Maybe when you're the lower teams they do that. I don't know if they do that to Boston or Montreal."

The game started at 8 p.m., 30 minutes late, because of the Beltway traffic jam and for once the Capitals were ready when the puck was dropped.

"If we played games like that every night I wouldn't have to worry about anything," said Belisle, who has been worrying about the usual unhappy half four from 7:30 to 8. "We played a real sound game. I felt we deserved a better fate."

Afterward, the Capitals recalled right wing Doug Patey from Hershey to take Rowe's place tonight. With Rowe hurt, victory snatched away and the club's winless streak at five games, it was not a night for celebration.

In other NHL action, Dave Taylor scored his 40th goal of the season with 3:25 to play to give the Kings a 4-3 victory over Atlanta in Los Angeles. Marcel Dionne had one goal and two assists for the Kings. In Detroit, rookie Dan Labraaten scored two power-play goals in the first 11 1/2 minutes to lead the Red Wings past Chicago, 5-3. It was Detroit's fourth straight victory. CAPTION: Picture, Midice collision in first period sends Capitals' Guy Charron, left, and Rangers' Dave Farrish (3) and Walt Tkaczuk sprawling. Caps scored first, 35 seconds into second period, but lost that lead and one other as game ended in a 2-2 tie. By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post