Al Jensen, the Washington Capitals' good-luck goalie, started his first game in three weeks last night. After a shaky beginning, he turned in an 18-save effort that carried the Capitals past the Vancouver Canucks, 5-2, at Capital Centre.

A crowd of 16,871 saw Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner each contribute two goals, with Gartner reaching the 100-goal mark in the NHL. Ryan Walter had the other score as a spirited all-hands effort gave the Capitals their second victory in the last 10 games.

The Capitals will have no time, or reason, to celebrate. They return to action tonight in Madison Square Garden (WDCA-TV-20, 7:30) against the New York Rangers, who stayed 12 points ahead by beating Montreal last night.

"It was effort that did it," said Coach Bryan Murray. "This was so different from the game in Pittsburgh. We did make some demands on a few people and they responded. Al Jensen came in and he hadn't played well and made a hell of a save when it could have meant a tie game."

That play came early in the third period as the Canucks, down 3-2, threw everything they had into the Washington zone. Thomas Gradin, skating down the slot, faked a shot and passed the puck to Curt Fraser near the post at Jensen's left. Fraser appeared to have an empty-net shot, but Jensen slid across to block it.

"When he passed it over, I just stuck out my leg and hoped it would hit something," Jensen said. "I was really lucky, because it banged off my pad."

The Canucks' counterattack dissolved in a series of penalties at midperiod. Darcy Rota was chased for charging Greg Theberge and Gerry Minor followed 56 seconds later, for pulling down Gartner behind the Washington net. Following coincidental minor penalties to Walter and the Canucks' Harold Snepsts, Gartner took advantage of the four-on-three situation to net a 50-footer.

Gartner, after a slow start, has scored in five straight games for 16 goals this season.

"Since the beginning of the season, I've been working hard, but the puck just wasn't going in," he said. "That's the way hockey is. A hockey player just seems to go in streaks. Hopefully, my slump is over and I can go on from here."

The Capitals went on from there, with Carpenter disdaining both pass and shot on a two-on-one with Lou Franceschetti. He skated right in, deked goalie Glen Hanlon and slid the insurance goal behind him. It was No. 13 for Carpenter, who had been struggling.

"He (Murray) gave me more ice time and it got me into the game more," Carpenter said. "I've got to have it. When I sit six or seven minutes, it's like starting over. Tonight I just wanted to go, no matter what happened. I was going to work so hard, even if I died I was going to keep going. I want to make things happen instead of watching."

Jensen assisted on Carpenter's goal for his first NHL point, feeding the puck to Tony Cassolato to start the play.

"It was great to have it at that moment, but I'll probably never think of it again," Jensen said. "I was surprised to get the start and it was hard to get going for a while, but the guys didn't give me that tough a game and they covered the rebounds really well."

Jensen has a 4-1 record in his rare appearances, not bad for a goaltender on a team that is 11-24-3.

Jensen had some problems early, as he was caught out of the net a couple of times and was fortunate that Fraser hit a post with the goal unguarded. After Carpenter fired in a 45-footer from the left-wing boards, the Canucks' Ivan Hlinka matched it from 40 feet out in the right-wing circle.

Stan Smyl took advantage of Darren Veitch's pratfall to put the Canucks in front with a breakaway goal early in the second period. Walter, who set a club record by playing in his 246th straight game, tied it from the left-wing circle, off Dennis Maruk's feed, then Gartner sent the Capitals ahead to stay with a power-play blast from the left-wing circle.

Maruk had three assists and now shares club career marks with Guy Charron in three departments: goals (118), assists (156) and points (274).

All four Washington newcomers--Tony Camazzola, Tony Cassolato, Errol Rausse and Jim McTaggart--turned in spirited performances, with Cassolato collecting two assists.

"Tony Camazzola is willing to get involved and that's what we need here," Murray said of the 19-year-old defenseman who made his NHL debut. "Guys like him are the future of this team."