For the Washington Capitals, it was the most thrilling game of the season. The excitement started even before the first puck was dropped Saturday night in Bloomington, Minn., as Gary Inness, the Capitals' backup goaltender, was rushed to a hospital when he became ill during the warmup.

"It was nothing, but (trainer) Gump (Embro) is like a mother hen," said Inness, who spent much of his hour in the hospital searching for a radio to listen to the game. "It's nice to know there's nothing wrong, but that was a hell of a hockey game to miss."

Washington 2, Minnesota North Stars 2.

It was a shame nobody in Washington could tune in, with both television and radio absent. Inness returned to hear a crescendo of sound from the 11,887 fans, who turned up the volume as Washington's Bengt Gustafsson prepared to try to shatter the 2-2 tie on a penalty shot.

The mano a mano was ordained by referee Bob Kilger when Minnesota goalie Gilles Meloche threw his stick at the puck. A drive by Rick Green caromed behind the net and back out, the puck coming to rest alongside the left goal post. Gustafsson, behind the net, poked at it in vain before Meloche threw his stick to knock it away.

"I should have taken one second more," Gustafsson said. "I didn't know I had more time and I hit at it too soon. Another second and I could have come around and knocked it in."

Gustafsson had a long wait before he undertook the resulting penalty shot. It must be taken by a player on the ice and Minnesota minor officials claimed that No. 26 was out there, not Gustafsson (No. 26).

Washington does not have a No. 26 so Gustafsson finally was permitted to begin the long, lonely skate toward the goal. While the fans screamed, Gustafsson put a deke on Meloche, who went down. The Swede could not lift the puck, however, and Meloche blocked it with his pad. In four NHL penalty-shot situations, Meloche has never been beaten.

"I plan to make a move, get him down and then pick it up," Gustafsson said. "I did just what I want to do, but the puck stopped on the ice and I got it in my feet.

"If you're lucky, you score. If he's lucky, he saves it. It's a 50-50 thing. I've had about 50-50 success on them. It's funny, the way the crowd tried to get on me. But you can't let them bother you."

Earlier, Gustafsson had tied the game at 1-1 on a breakaway, beating Meloche with a similar move. The puck hit the center post and caromed out, high in the air, and neither the goal judge nor Kilger acknowledged the goal. Play continued for several seconds until linesman Will Norris Kilger what had happened.

Leif Svensson's backhander from the right-wing circle gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead, but Minnesota's Bobby Smith tied it on a great individual effort in his first game back since suffering a broken ankle Nov. 17.

Both Meloche and Washington's Rollie Boutin were brilliant in the nets as Minnesota outshot the Capitals, 34-33, and each made some excellent saves in the closing minutes as neither team attempted to sit back and insure a tie.

"The shots were even, the game was even and we'll take a tie against a good team like that playing away from home," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "At least, we'll take it this time."

The North Stars have lost only one home game all season, to Buffalo, and list fewer defeats, nine, than any team except Philadelphia. So trying them was even more indicative of Capital progress than winning over Hartford Friday night.

"The Caps are really an improved team," said Minnesota General Manager Lou Nanne. "They're a good skating club and that goalie (Boutin) is doing an excellent job."