"A big four points, very big," Gaetan Duchesne said after the Capitals had beaten the New York Rangers, 4-3, tonight. Duchesne was referring to the two points in the standings earned by the Capitals and the two that their nearest pursuer in the Patrick Division did not get.

"We played very well, controlled kind of hockey. I don't really think we let down in the third period; I think the Rangers just put more pressure on."

Indeed, the Rangers, who skated out looking disorganized and did little to improve that position through most of the night, came back with two late goals to chip away at Washington's 4-1 edge, but the game was hardly close.

"It's that style they play, all the circling, that can hurt them if just one guy isn't where he should be," said Bobby Carpenter, who scored two second-period goals. "Somebody out of position has to skate to catch up, and then play ends up circling the other way. Tonight it hurt them."

Despite Washington penalties that could have been turned into an advantage, the Rangers spent too many minutes racing end to end, winding up zero for seven on the power play.

"I was disappointed to give up two goals so early," New York Coach Herb Brooks said later, referring to first-period scores by Mike Gartner and Scott Stevens. "Obviously this is a club we'd like to catch."

The victory moved Washington 11 points ahead of New York in the Patrick Division, and cost the Rangers a goaltender. Ed Mio, who started the game, injured his left groin when Dennis Maruk skated into him at 5:21 of the first period. He is expected to be out a week to 10 days.

The Capitals know all about coping with injuries. With Brian Engblom and Craig Laughlin both out of action for a week (Engblom was hit by a puck above the left eye and Laughlin suffered a slight shoulder separation, both in the 5-3 loss to Edmonton Wednesday), there was some juggling with the lineup tonight. Chris Valentine, who set up Carpenter's first goal, and Paul MacKinnon were called up from Hershey.

Rod Langway, who always seems to be on the ice anyway, played a solid 50 minutes tonight, compensating for Engblom's absence.

"I may have overused him a bit," Bryan Murray said later, "But he said he wanted to have some fun out there with the puck."

If the Capitals did have fun, they looked like workaholics doing so. "We had plenty of penalties to kill," Murray said. It's a real compliment to people like (Doug) Jarvis, (Glen) Currie and Duchesne, who don't always kill penalties."

And with just five defensemen (Timo Blomqvist sat out with a sore knee apparently hurt near the end of Wednesday's game with Edmonton; the injury not believed serious), Stevens said later, "You felt you wanted to take up the slack and work that much harder to make up for it. I know I did, and my legs were like rubber that last time out."

Washington took a 2-1 lead after the first period on Mike Gartner's 30th goal at 11:41 and Stevens' seventh goal almost two minutes later. Mikko Leinonen pulled New York to within 2-1 at 18:22, getting off a shot from the right circle.

The Rangers might have had a chance to move back into the game earlier, after Leinonen's goal appeared to give the New Yorkers a little momentum. But in the second period it was all Capitals, or rather all Carpenter, who scored twice within four minutes to give Washington its biggest lead of the night at 4-1.

Carpenterhs first goal came on a power play at 6:47 when he took a pass from Valentine in front of the crease and but the puck over New York goalie Glen Hanlon to give the Capitals a 3-1 lead. The 19-year-old center scored his second goal at 17:13 on a sla shot from just inside the right point to make it 4-1.

"They could very easily have pulled closer to us," Carpenter said. "They must want to play Philadelphia (in the first round of the play-offs)."

New York's third-period goals, by Reijo Ruotsalanen, at 14:44 and Eddie Johnston, who reflected the puck into the net with 10 seconds left, were too late to do more than frustrate the already frustrated Rangers.

Told that the victory would guarantee third place for the Capitals, Murray just smiled and said, "We still have to win half our games. And I wouldn't count the Rangers out of it just yet."

Stevens went crashing into the boards when Dave Maloney checked him, and may have stretched muscle in his right arm. He caught his arm between the board and the plexiglass. Although he continued playing, Stevens will have the arm examined by doctors.