The Washington Capitals, who opened their ninth year with a 5-4 victory over the New York Rangers Wednesday night, should have clipped out yesterday's National Hockey League standings and framed them.

With the Islanders and Rangers losing their openers, Pittsburgh tying New Jersey and Philadelphia idle until last night, Washington was the Patrick Division leader.

Of course, they all know 79 more games are ahead, but Mike Gartner, who scored the winning goal at 18:10 of Wednesday's third period, assessed the situation simply. "Feels good to win one, eh?" he said.

That is clearly an understatement for the Capitals. Coach Bryan Murray, badgered by TV and radio types when it was over, was the visual version of how to spell relief. In fact, all those in Washington's locker room were breathing a sigh of relief.

The Capitals have won the opening game of their season before; four times, to be exact. But this was the debut of the "new" Capitals, with four ex-Canadiens and a former Czech national team center. And a hopeful outlook.

The newness wasn't much in evidence during the first period, however. Reverting to their old ways, the Capitals could not get organized and the Rangers opened a 2-0 lead.

Murray admitted his team hadn't played well that period, which Gartner attributed to nervousness.

"Everybody was kind of waiting, to see if somebody else was going to make a move," he said. "We were really slow starting. But after that, we never stopped going at them."

Over the next two periods, the Capitals remembered why they had come to Madison Square Garden. The Rangers, perhaps trying too hard, lost their two-goal edge, and their discipline as well, when Washington evened the score, then pulled ahead, 3-2, on a goal by rookie defenseman Scott Stevens in the second period.

Washington's most productive work of the night was done by the new line of Gartner, Milan Novy and Bobby Carpenter. Besides his game winning goal, Gartner had two assists. Novy, who had appeared a touch unsure throughout the exhibition season while playing with several wings, finally seemed comfortable.

Murray had been seeking the right combination to skate with Novy; evidently this is the one.

"Milan is always in the right place," Gartner said. Against the Rangers, Novy scored one goal and assisted on two; Carpenter had one goal and two assists.

Murray has experimented with other lines, too, and Wednesday put Dennis Maruk between Alan Haworth and Bengt Gustafsson, who formerly played on the Gartner-Carpenter line.