It was apparent before the opening faceoff in Madison Square Garden tonight that this was not going to be a lucky seventh for the Washington Capitals.

Goaltender Pat Riggin took a shot over his left ear in the warmup, became dizzy when he skated out for the start of the game and left for observation at a nearby hospital.

Al Jensen performed creditably as an emergency starter, despite the lack of a proper warmup, but his teammates had a tough time getting untracked. The New York Rangers built a 3-0 lead in the first 16 minutes and withstood Washington's frantic finish to post a 4-3 victory.

The Capitals' third goal, by Mike Gartner, came with Jensen off for a sixth skater and only 14 seconds left.

"We've had great starts every hockey game, but tonight in the first period we didn't bump them and we let them skate freely and attack our defense," said Coach Bryan Murray. "We backpedaled the whole first period."

Riggin returned after the game ended and said, "It's going to be a concussion. They told me to wake up every two hours just to be careful. I tried to play, but I started getting dizzy and lightheaded, and I knew I was in no shape to be stopping pucks."

Asked if he would be ready to play Friday against Edmonton, Riggin said, "I don't know. This is the third time this year and I want to be very careful this trip. I'll just play it by ear."

The shooter whose rising drive nailed Riggin was Dave Shand, who was not scheduled to play but warmed up anyway. Riggin tried to bail out when Shand unloaded from the top of the right wing circle but the puck struck him to the side of his birdcage and he fell face-down in the crease.

Asked about his practice of letting players skate in the warmup who are not scheduled to play, Murray said, "It was just to get some skating. We had no ice today and the guy's got to be ready to play hockey. In 20 minutes, he can get a bit of a workout before he watches the game."

It was not a game that many of the Capitals will wish to watch on videotape. As usual, Washington outshot the opposition, this time by 36-25. But also, as usual, the Capitals did not take advantage of many glowing opportunities.

New York broke on top after Reijo Ruotsalainen picked off a Doug Jarvis pass in the Washington end and skated down the left side. The Finn made a remarkable move to fake Bryan Erickson out of his path in the neutral zone, then fed Jan Erixon in the left wing circle. Erixon's feed found Pierre Larouche alone in the slot for the first of his two goals.

The Rangers converted their only power play of the night to make it 2-0. Ruotsalainen fired a knuckleball from the right point that struck Jensen's left arm and caromed behind him.

It became 3-0 when Jensen and Bob Carpenter were unable to clear a puck that was lying alongside the net at Jensen's right. Ranger Dave Gagner sent a billiard shot off Capital Darren Veitch's skate to Don Maloney, who scored from the slot.

The Capitals are not the kind of team that finds it easy to rebound from a three-goal deficit. They tried, however, and Bob Gould connected before the first period ended, on a midair rebound of a shot by Glen Currie.

Washington had its chances in the scoreless second period, outshooting New York, 13-5. Ranger goalie Glen Hanlon had to be both limber and lucky to maintain his lead.

Gartner hit a post and saw a sure-score pass to Paul Gardner deflected by a Ranger reaching blindly behind him. But the most unlucky shot was made by Alan Haworth, who was hooked down and, while lying on the ice, tried to sweep the puck into the net -- except that he thought Hanlon, buried under a pile of players to the left of the goal, was still in front of the net. So Haworth shoved the puck into the goalie instead of the empty net.

"It came so fast -- somebody hooked me and I was falling -- that I just kind of swiped it," Haworth said. "I didn't know he was out of the net and I didn't know I had time to get up."

It was that kind of a night. Early in the third period, Larouche broke behind Stevens, took Erixon's headman pass and put an excellent fake on Jensen before depositing the puck behind him.

As the Rangers inexplicably went into a defensive shell, Gary Sampson reduced the deficit to 4-2 with 8:40 left, reaching around from behind to tap the puck across the line after a shot by Gould came to a stop against the post at Hanlon's right.

Gartner made the final score seem closer than it was, intercepting a Hanlon clear to record his ninth goal, but it was too late to alter the outcome.

As in every defeat, things could have been worse. Gartner took a stick in the ribs in the third period and there was wonder whether he was seriously hurt. That was the night's good news: he merely had the wind knocked out of him.