Ten months ago, Gary Inness joined a Washington Capitals team that was 8-20-4 and totally demoralized. His brilliant goaltending injected the confidence that turned things around and with Inness playing every game in January, the capitals enjoyed the finest month in their history, 9-5-1.

The strain of tending goal night after night -- his streak reached 21 games -- eventually broke down Inness and he began to be troubled by headaches. Nevertheless, he finished with a 3.70 goals-against mark and a .500 record.

Inness made his first star, of this campaign Sunday night in New York and his 43-save effort again instilled confidence in a Capitals team that was floundering, Washington beat the Rangers, 5-8 and the dressing room resounded with so many joyous shouts that a New York reporter asked, "when aree they presenting the cup?"

This is a young hockey club but there are older players to help settle us down," said Iness, 30, the No. 1 settler. "we've been rather hesitant in previous games as there was a lack of confidence, like everyone was not sure what was desired. This win will give us a big boost."

In the first period, New York outshot the Capitals, 20-5, but only with a two-man advantage could the Rangers break through Inness. He was so remarkable that Ranger after Ranger would shoot, look in vain for a red light and glance roofward in bewilderment.

The Ranger frustrations played a part in the fights that produced a one-period total of 70 minutes in penalties. Mike McEwen, talking to himself after Inness gloved a drive headed for the top corner, moments later knocked down Bengt Gustafsson from behind and precipitated a brawl that ended with Robert Picard choking McEwen.

The Capitals are home tonight at 7:30 p.m. for a contest with the Los Angeles Kings and Inness figures to start in the nets. If he can maintain his form of Sunday, he is assured the No. 1 job, in a turnabout from the days when he was Wayne Stephenson's understudy at Philadelphia.

Having the 34-year-old Stephenson around, however, guarantees that Innes no longer will be forced to play himself into exhaustion. And a healthy competition between the two can only benefit the team.

It would also be beneficial, of course, if Inness' teammates could keep opposing shot totals more reasonable, but Inness had no complaints about Sunday's bombardment.

"I like a lot of action," he said. "It doesn't give my mind a chance to wander."

Coach Danny Belisle was both pleased with Inness and relieved that the Capitals had secured that first victory.

"If we had gone into New York and lost, it would have created a lot more pressure that these young guys don't need," Belisle said. "That was a great psychological lift for us. Going home 0-3, there would have been a lot of pressure."

Home ice has not necessarily been a joy for the Capitals, with only 55 victories in 201 games, but they do own a three-game winning streak here against Los Angeles. In fact, the Capitals are unbeaten in four games with Kings since their ire was aroused by a 10-2 humiliation in Los Angeles during pre-Inness days on Dec. 4, 1978.

The Kings, starting a five-game road trip, are led by the big line of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor. They also will display former Washington left wing Mike Marson.

Washington's Dennis Maruk is the NHL's leading scorer, after the first week, with six goals and one assist. He suffered a bruised muscle above the knee but will be ready tonight. Gord Lane and Yvon Labre once again will replace injured defensemen Rick Green and Pierre Bouchard.