This present was bigger than a breadbox and twice as tough to wrap.

On the eve of Coach Bryan Murray's 40th birthday, the Washington Capitals gave him a 4-2 Capital Centre victory over the Chicago Black Hawks, whose 17-4-5 record leads the league.

"These players deserve credit for a real effort," said Murray. "They (Chicago) took it to us in the first (period) but after that, we moved and didn't give them anything at all."

During the first period the Capitals had a scant six shots on goal with nothing to show for them. Chicago had taken a one-goal lead midway CAPTION: Picture 1, Scott Stevens of Capitals sends Steve Larmer flying from in front of the nets with a body checks. No penalty was called on the play. AP; Picture 2, Capitals goalie Pat Riggin frustrates Rich Preston of Black Hawks by blocking his shot from close range. UPIthrough the period on Rich Preston's shot, but from then on, it was the Capitals' game.

Dennis Maruk's power-play goal 41 seconds into the middle period was followed by three unanswered Capitals goals. Chicago squeezed out a single goal by Al Secord at 15:20 of the final period.

"The whole team played well," said Gaetan Duchesne, one of the four Capitals who scored against Tony Esposito. "In the first period, it was hot in here, you couldn't get your breath, the ice seemed . . ." Words failed Duchesne, but he added, "I know it's the same ice for both teams but still, after that first period, we came out, skated, pushed, forechecked and beat the best team in the NHL.

"If you try hard in practice, you do the same in a game."

Duchesne's goal came at 13:12, after Maruk and Bobby Carpenter had each scored on a power play. Bobby Gould skated around the back of the Chicago net, trying to tuck the puck underneath Esposito.

The puck spun away from the goalie and Duchesne, just outside the goal, shoved it into a corner of the net.

Twenty-three seconds later, Bengt Gustafsson, who had been taking aim all night, finally got his name in lights, or at least on the blurry TelScreen.

Ted Bulley, near the blueline, passed the puck wide to Gustafsson, who handed it to Craig Laughlin. Laughlin cradled it, and returned it to Gustafsson, who sent it into the net as he was sent into the boards at 13:35.

With 13 shots on goal in that period and 11 in the final one, the Capitals were stingy with the puck, attacking the Chicago end of the ice for most of the game.

"We made some adjustments after the first period," Murray said. "Mostly in our own zone, dropping our left winger much deeper than we had. And Duchesne and Carpenter got the puck by their defense all the time, kept coming back with it.

"Other than (Chicago's) four-on-three in the third, the Black Hawks were breaking it off, trying to get to the point, but our guys kept coming back," Murray said. "With Secord, you know you don't really have anybody to take him, so I told them, play between Secord and the puck and cut off everything." He shrugged, not happy that Secord had gotten by, but content because the late goal hadn't cost a victory.

Murray has been working steadily at improving the power play, which has been more like a power shortage at times. "Tonight they moved the puck extremely well," he said. "They moved, which is what I wanted. And if it doesn't happen next time, blame those guys, not me, okay?"

Against Pittsburgh Thursday night, the Capitals held a three-goal edge late in the game and watched it diminish to a 5-4 finish. "Going into a shell with a lead," the players and Murray have called it, but tonight no shell appeared to zap the Capitals momentum.