Mike Gartner marked his 400th National Hockey League game with two goals last night and the Washington Capitals extended their winning streak to three games with a 6-4 defeat of the New Jersey Devils.

The Capitals led all the way after Paul Gardner netted his 200th NHL goal at 4:20 of the first period. Often, however, it proved to be a precarious lead, as the Devils kept a Capital Centre crowd of 12,876 on edge by scoring three power-play goals in the third period.

After Washington's 4-1 margin was trimmed to 4-3 by Doug Sulliman's two goals 68 seconds apart, Gartner responded with a drive from the right-wing circle into the upper far corner.

After the Devils' Pat Verbeek again cut it to one, Timo Blomqvist started a three-on-one break that Bryan Erickson turned into an insurance score with 3:33 left.

Although Washington Coach Bryan Murray was a winner in his first game against his old McGill University buddy, New Jersey Coach Doug Carpenter, he was in no mood to celebrate.

"We get a 4-1 lead in the third period and we struggle," Murray said. "We need a great goal from Gartner and then a goal from Erickson to put it away.

"We had two-on-ones and three-on-twos where we didn't make a play. I told the guys we spend more time in practice on that than anything else. And three power-play goals again tonight -- we struggled in that area. One penalty killing situation we end up with two hockey sticks gone, one broken and one dropped."

For all their shortcomings, the Capitals accomplished one thing. By beating New Jersey for the 12th time in 15 meetings -- the other three were tied -- they climbed into a second-place tie with the New York Islanders in the crowded Patrick Division standings.

Gardner opened the scoring on a rebound of Darren Veitch's shot, after Bob Carpenter hustled to grab his own rebound and shove the puck to Veitch at the right point. It was Gardner's first NHL goal since the 1982-83 season, as he was farmed out after 16 scoreless games in Pittsburgh last season and not recalled. He signed with Washington after the Penguins released him June 30.

"It took about a year and a half to get No. 200 and it's very satisfying," Gardner said. "Last year, when I went on $100 waivers and nobody called, I thought maybe it was time to look somewhere else, that my last chance in the NHL was gone. Now I've been here two games, we've got two wins and I've contributed. I hope I can contribute some more."

He contributed less than five minutes later, pouncing on the puck behind the New Jersey goal line and feeding Gartner in the slot for the score that made it 2-0.

With a 17-6 shooting edge, the Capitals were in command. But Paul Gagne took a pass deflected off a Washington skate and beat Al Jensen early in the second period to give the Devils some life.

New Jersey came close to a tie several times -- Sulliman on one occasion griped to the goal judge that he had scored -- before Jim McGeough made it 3-1. McGeough took a rebound in the left-wing circle and, instead of copying teammates who had fired right back into Finnish goalie Hannu Kamppuri's balloon pads, he skated into the slot and sent a backhander into the vacated net.

When Alan Haworth converted off Dave Christian pass at the 11-second mark of the third period, the result seemed assured. However, Sulliman scored 13 seconds after a holding penalty to Peter Andersson and 36 seconds after a hooking call on Rod Langway.

Gartner eased the pressure with 9:13 left. Doug Jarvis lofted the puck out of the Capitals' end and defender Phil Russell leaped to try to keep it in. It went off his glove to Gartner, who beat Kamppuri with a blast from the faceoff spot in the right-wing circle.

"It was just a matter of bearing down," Gartner said. "Instead of burying them when we were two goals up, we let them off the hook. But it wasn't a panic situation by any means. We just had to bear down."

A tripping penalty to Glen Currie was followed by Verbeek's rebound score with 5:15 remaining, after Jensen had blocked two shots by Mel Bridgman.

The Devils pressed for the tying goal and were caught by Blomqvist on the three-on-one. Erickson faked out Kamppuri and backhanded the puck between his legs to wrap it up.

"For me, it was a sense of relief," Erickson said. "I missed so many quality chances. I was stopped on a breakaway, on a rebound of Darren Veitch's shot and on two two-on-ones. I've been hesitating and aiming instead of just shooting. But it will come -- and that goal certainly helped my confidence."