hat headline doesn't lie. The Washington Capitals opened their ninth season with a 5-4 victory over the Rangers here tonight, thanks to Mike Gartner's goal at 18:10 of the third period.

"We really started kind of slowly," Gartner said after the victory, "probably from nervousness. We came back in here after that first period and said, that wasn't our hockey team out there."

Indeed, whatever hockey team was there, skating around in Capitals jerseys, played hesitantly and looked disorganized next to the Rangers. Even on a power play chance, with Mark Pavelich off for holding at 4:50, the Capitals could do little more than play give-and-go with the puck within the New York zone.

Pavelich scored three minutes later to give the home team a 1-0 lead. Washington, frustrated at best, appeared to get a scare when goalie Pat Riggin took a puck right in the mask midway through the period. When a Mike Rogers shot flew toward the net, Riggin deflected it, then turned his head and was hit.

At the time, Riggin appeared to sag against the crossbar, but after the game, he said, "Yeah, it stunned me a little. But, hey, we were killing a penalty and there were four guys out there who needed a break, and I needed one. So I put on a bit of a show."

New York led, 2-0, after one period, but Washington regrouped and came back strong. "We loosened up a bit after the first period, and we showed what kind of hustle we can use over the last two," said Gartner. "Luckily we only needed two."

Early in the second period, the Capitals charged back into the game, with Ted Bulley's goal at 4:04, followed by Bobby Carpenter's just over a minute later. Milan Novy assisted on both scores.

With the game tied, suddenly New York looked edgy, flailing at shots that went wide of Riggin.

Scott Stevens, the rookie defenseman who was Washington's first-round draftee last June, scored his first regular season NHL goal. He skated from the Capitals end across the blueline, carrying the puck, and wound up from the point to put it past Eddie Mio.

If his teammates were pleasantly surprised, and the always vocal Madison Square Garden crowd was irritated, Stevens had to be the most shocked person in the building. A television replay showed his stunned face watching the puck drop off the Ranger crossbar.

New York, at best unhappy to be behind the Capitals even momentarily, came back from the second period recess and tied the game on Eddie Johnstone's short-handed goal at 4:39. Captain Barry Beck was sitting in the penalty box for charging, but Mike Rogers swung the pass from the blueline toward Johnston, who shot it past Riggin.

They followed that with Don Maloney's behind-the-net feed to Mike Allison. On that score, Riggin, who spends most of his night skating outside the crease, was caught out of position in back of the cage. All the falling Maloney had to do was hand it to Allison in front of the net.

But Novy, who speaks little English but obviously knows the whims of hockey, put Washington right back into the game. Gartner skated around Mio's net with the puck, passing it outside, where the waiting Novy pushed it behind Mio at 7:09.

Novy's score brought a chorus of boos from the Garden crowd, which was destined to become even unhappier before the night ended.

At 18:10, with both teams determined not to leave the building with a tie, Gartner took the puck from Gustafsson, who had tried seconds before to give the Capitals a lead. But Gartner's move was successful, and Mio fell toward the puck, watching it drift into the netting and out of his grasp, much as the game did for the Rangers.

With a minute to go, New York, which had ceased to resemble the disciplined Herb Brooks team everyone expected to see, did the obvious thing, beckoning Mio to the bench in favor of a sixth skater.

But even that move failed to give the Rangers another score. Washington, faced with an empty net at the far end of the rink, tried at least twice to get a puck inside, but shots went flying off the pipes, which may have mollified the Rangers a bit. Not enough, though, because at the final buzzer the New York boys skated straight to the dressing room while the Capitals leaped up and down as if they'd won a Stanley Cup.

"Feels good to win one, eh?" said Gartner, looking a little shellshocked.