Most of the Washington Capitals could have used a little more sleep. Goalie Pat Riggin was too sick to celebrate. Still, the Capitals turned in one of their best efforts of the season tonight to defeat the New York Rangers, 2-1.

Dave Christian's goal with 7:44 remaining broke a tie and Washington made it hold up for its third straight victory. There were some shaky moments before the final buzzer sounded, however.

Riggin made good saves on Bob Brooke, Chris Kontos and Barry Beck down the stretch. Then, after Washington's Gaetan Duchesne hit a post in a bid for an empty-net clincher, the Rangers mounted a big threat.

Just as Anders Hedberg attempted a shot from the slot with 11 seconds left, Washington's Scott Stevens lifted the goal cage from its moorings. In a somewhat bizarre ruling, he went to the penalty box for "holding," with the Rangers' cries for a penalty shot rejected by referee Denis Morel.

With six Rangers skating against four Capitals, New York had one more chance. But as the clock ticked down to one second, Riggin blocked Beck's deflection of a shot by Mike Rogers. Rogers thereupon smashed his stick in disgust, as New York suffered its seventh loss in eight games and fell six points behind third-place Washington in the Patrick Division.

"There was a guy by the net and I went to force him out the other side," Stevens said of his post pattern that enraged many of the 17,415 fans. "I used the post to slow myself, so I could come back in front, and it came up. It was an accident, but I guess it came at a good time for us. I didn't know the pass was coming out (to Hedberg)."

"I didn't get a good look at it, but if it was intentional, it should have been a penalty shot," said New York Coach Herb Brooks. "People who saw it better said it was intentional."

Said Morel: "He was holding No. 25 and in the process he knocked the net off. It was not intentional."

No. 25, Peter Sundstrom, was not on the ice at the time and the only thing Stevens was holding was the goal post.

According to Rule 50(d), a penalty shot will be awarded if a player deliberately displaces a goal post in the last two minutes of regulation time.

Adding to the Rangers' frustrations was an apparent goal by James Patrick that Morel quickly disallowed with the score at 1-1 and 11:25 remaining.

Ranger Bob Brooke swept through the crease and carried Riggin out with him, leaving Patrick a clear shooting path. Without hesitation, Morel sent Brooke off for interference.

"I'm glad the guy saw it," Riggin said. "He could have been somewhere else and missed it. But there certainly wasn't any question about it. I was standing in the net ready to stop a shot and the next thing, I'm picking myself off the ice. You can't get away with that."

"I got forced into the goalie by the defense," insisted Brooke, but replays showed the anonymous Capitals defenseman to be as invisible as Sundstrom proved later.

Not long after the no-goal ruling, Christian deflected Rod Langway's drive from the left point for the eventual winner.

"I was just looking at the puck to get my stick on it," said Christian, who has three goals and four assists in the Capitals' last three games. "Everybody was tired tonight, but we dug down and played a good checking game. This was a big win for us."

The Capitals' weariness dated back to the flight here from Quebec following their 9-2 victory Tuesday. They made two approaches to fogbound Newark Airport before detouring to Teterboro, N.J. Then a lengthy wait for customs officials to drive from Newark put them in their New York hotel at 3:30 a.m.

Riggin recorded 19 saves, losing his shutout bid on Sundstrom's goal early in the third period. It came on a second rebound, after Riggin had blocked shots by Sundstrom and Pierre Larouche.

"Tonight my body ached, especially the joints," Riggin said. "Maybe I had a touch of the flu. Fortunately, the boys played well in front of me. I think this was our best game in a long time, especially in our end."

The Rangers twice had won by a goal in previous meetings with Washington. The last time here, Riggin was struck in the head by a shot in the warmup and was unable to play.

"I didn't take much warmup tonight," he said.

In a bit of an oddity, a rising shot by the Capitals' Bob Carpenter struck a teammate, backup goalie Bob Mason, in the head during the warmup. Mason had to be helped off.

"The puck broke the bar on the front of my helmet and the middle bar sheared off like a knife," Mason said. "If it had been pushed in, it might have dug into my face and I could have been hurt seriously."

Carpenter atoned for the runaway shot by scoring the only goal of the first two periods. He deflected Mike McEwen's drive past goalie Glen Hanlon at 13:07, at which point Washington had an 8-1 shooting edge.

Hanlon stopped 26 shots, including sensational saves on second-period breakaways by Dean Evason and Christian.

One sidelight was a lengthy fight between two of the NHL's strong men, Stevens and Beck, at the end of the first period. As their teammates stood on the ice to watch, but neither was able to throw down the other or break free to launch more than a couple punches.

"I was dead for the rest of the game and I guess he was, too," Stevans said.