New Jersey Coach Billy MacMillan considered starting goalie Ron Low tonight against his old team, the Washington Capitals. Instead, MacMillan went with his hot hand, Chico Resch. The consequences guaranteed MacMillan a sleepless night.

Resch gave up four goals on six shots and departed after 12 minutes 11 seconds. Low, in relief, blocked 22 of the 23 shots the Capitals aimed his way.

The net result was a 5-4 victory for Washington, which reached the 80-point mark with 12 games remaining. Washington also tied the New York Islanders for second place in the Patrick Division after the defending Stanley Cup champions lost, 6-0, in St. Louis.

The Capitals' hero was Bob Carpenter, who scored twice despite playing with a makeshift cast over a cracked bone in his left wrist. Carpenter has totaled four goals in Washington's last two road games and now has 26 for the season.

"They were close-in goals," Carpenter said. "I didn't have to shoot. The wrist is awfully sore. The cast doesn't restrict my movement; it's just tender."

Carpenter's first goal came on a deflection of a Rod Langway shot; the second was a third-period rebound of a Timo Blomqvist drive and it lifted the Capitals into a 5-2 lead with 12:48 remaining. As it turned out, that was just enough.

Aaron Broten's rebound of a Bob Lorimer shot made it 5-3 with 4:20 left. Then, after Low was pulled for a sixth skater, Jeff Larmer connected off a faceoff in the Washington end with nine seconds on the clock.

"Ron Low made some great saves," MacMillan said. "I thought about starting him, but Chico was hot Sunday against the Rangers and he's been hot. When the game ends that close, it makes it so much more frustrating."

Resch could not remember ever being yanked earlier, but he said, "It wasn't early enough, was it? That was pretty awful. I used a shovel instead of a stick and dug us a deep hole."

Bengt Gustafsson opened the scoring on the game's first shot, after 17 seconds. He checked Brent Ashton off the puck in the right wing circle and quickly fired it past Resch's stick into the far corner.

Alan Haworth's 20th goal made it 2-0 at 2:56. Ken Houston aimed a pass toward Haworth, but Devil Mike Moher picked it off. Haworth checked Moher, grabbed the puck and beat Resch low on the glove side.

Carpenter's deflection followed at 10:55 and he said of it, "Rod made a great play. I had my stick there, he hit it and it went in."

Gaetan Duchesne's unscreened 35-footer off Resch's left skate at 12:11 inspired boos from the crowd of 9,350 and also brought Low to the rescue.

"The first three I could live with, but the fourth one was so terrible," Resch said. "I can't explain it. It was one of those nights. You never know when they'll come."

Second-period goals by Don Lever and Jan Ludvig halved the margin and, combined with some spectacular saves by Low, brought the Devils to life.

"I was disturbed, because there's been a trend in the league for a team that dominates the first period to do a complete reversal in the second and that's what happened to us," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "We let them back in the game."

Carpenter's second goal, on the Capitals' 17th shot at Low, proved to be the winner, after Broten and Larmer closed the gap to one. Larmer's goal marked the second time in three games a team had scored against the Capitals after pulling its goalie.

Oddly, while that goal had no effect on the outcome, it made a loser of Low, because it meant that he gave up the game-winning score. If that NHL rule seems unfair, life must seem unfair to Low, who was playing for first-place Edmonton a month ago and now finds himself with one of hockey's worst teams.

Asked if he had psyched himself up to face the Capitals, for whom he toiled during three forgettable seasons, Low said, "No, I haven't any animosity left for any of my old teams. The way it's going, that's practically the whole league, anyway."