Dennis Maruk scored four goals and Gary Inness blocked 43 shots tonight as the Washington Capitals scratched and clawed their way into the victory column with a 5-3 decision over the New York Rangers.

Three of Maruk's scores came within less than seven minutes of the second period as the Capitals finally displayed the form that everyone, including them, expected.

For the first 20 minutes, it was Inness who kept the Capitals in contention, stopping 19 shots as the Rangers enjoyed a 20-5 edge in that department. The only New York score in that session came with 39 seconds left and the Capitals two men down.

The first period contained numerous fights, with Yvon Labre and Greg Polis of Washington joining Dave Maloney, the Ranger captain, as spectators after flagrant violations. There were so many men in the box as Washington served 42 minutes and New York 28 that each team had delayed penalties pending at the same time and Washington's Tom Rowe came out too soon on one occasion when a delayed penalty was yet to begin.

But if those first 20 minutes provided more fisticuffs than hockey, there was enough superb skating, passing and shooting in the last 40 minutes to satisfy even the most critical of fans.

Maruk, who wrapped up the victory by winning a center-ice faceoff and hitting an empty net, was scoring four goals for the third time in his NHL career. Oddly, one of the previous victims was Inness. Even more strange, Maruk's first NHL goal was scored against the man he victimized tonight, Wayne Thomas.

Characteristically of both Maruk and Inness, each preferred to talk more about the other than about himself.

"Around the net you won't find many better players than Dennis Maruk," Inness said. "He drifts in and out and it's hard to get a piece of him."

"Gary Inness made so many big saves in the first period that we figured, hey, he's working his butt off in the nets for us, let's pick up our socks and do something for him," Maruk said.

Maruk lifted his socks higher than anyone else. At 1:58, with Ranger Don Maloney off for tripping, Robert Picard drove the puck off the side glass and it caromed crazily around the boards. Tom Rowe retrieved it behind the New York net and set up Maruk in front.

At 3:02, Rowe stole the puck from Ulf Nilsson in center ice and sent a headman pass to Maruk. He split the defense and whistled a drive over Thomas' left shoulder.

Nilsson's deflection of a Carol Vadnais' slap shot lifted the Rangers into a 2-2 tie with Picard off for tripping, but Maruk quickly untied it at 8:55. He stopped Picard's feed from the point, waited while Thomas went down and lifted the puck over the goalie.

Rookie Bengt Gustafsson made a fine drop pass to Rolf Edberg, who built the Capitals' lead to 4-2. Another Swede, the Rangers' Anders Hedberg, connected just 24 seconds into the final period, however and the Capitals could have panicked. Instead, athey blanked the Rangers the rest of the way, with Inness making 11 saves.

"When they got that goal right away, we knew we had to stick to our men, pat each other on the back and hang in there," said Maruk, who has six goals in three games. "It means an awful lot to all of us that we were able to do it.

"Losing those first two games, we were still tense and we weren't happy. You find yourself wondering what you're doing wrong and it just builds up. But we've been playing some tough teams and the Rangers are no patsies. They're the Stanley Cup finalists and we know if we can beat them in their rink we can beat a lot of other teams."

The Capitals recived a bit of a break early in the third period when Don Murdoch put the puck behind Inness. Referee Denis Morel, who was in perfect position, ruled that Murdoch had kicked the puck into the net.

Washington was playing without defensemen Rick Green, bruised ankle, and Pierre Bouchard, groin pull. They were replaced by Labre and Gord Lane.

"Lane and Labre put some life into us," said Coach Danny Belisle, a former Ranger himself. "Those fights pulled us closer together as a team. Of course, Inness was fantastic and you need that kind of goal tending to win. And it's a good thing we brought Maruk along."