Nine games ago, the Washington Capitals brought up 28-year-old defenseman Mike McEwen from the minors in Binghamton. They were trying to shake up the team, and thought McEwen might help. They also liked his shot.

After tonight, they like it even more.

McEwen, who wears an inch-long, stitched scar on his cheek and a sly grin on his face, rattled a wrist shot off the post and past Minnesota goalie Gilles Meloche with 5:58 remaining in the game to give the Capitals a 3-2 victory over the North Stars before 13,151 at the Met Center.

Dave Christian, whose passes set up two Washington goals tonight, moved behind the net with the puck as McEwen charged in from the point to Meloche's left.

McEwen yelled to Christian, who fed him "a perfect pass," McEwen said. He ripped his shot toward the goal, and watched as it banged off the post, hit the back of Meloche's arm, and bounced into the net at 14:02 of the third period.

"I was just hoping to get some kind of rebound off the shot," McEwen said.

Instead, he gave the Capitals (14-9-6) their eighth victory in 10 games, and perhaps most important, allowed them to move three points ahead of the New York Islanders for second place in the Patrick Division.

The Capitals, who tied St. Louis, 3-3, Tuesday, gained three of four possible points on this two-game road trip, and have 34 overall. Division-leading Philadelphia has 39.

Washington Coach Bryan Murray shook his head as he pondered two weeks of good fortune -- now lengthened by McEwen. "He doesn't know what it's like to lose," Murray said.

The game was vintage Washington: a close-to-the-vest, defensive struggle that the Capitals fought back to tie, 2-2, going into the third period.

Team captain Rod Langway said his team "thrives" on such games. "The whole idea is to take a 2-2 game into the third period and win it on the road," he said.

Nail-biters are Washington's style, not Minnesota's. The North Stars, losers now of four in a row, prefer wide-open hockey. "We're not going to blow anyone out," Murray said, "and we want to get into that (tight) kind of game. We're better at it than Minnesota."

The Capitals allowed this game to stay close by failing to capitalize on six of seven power play opportunities. (The North Stars failed on two of three.)

Squandered chances surfaced early, when 12 penalties were called in a raucous first period.

The North Stars took a 1-0 lead on right wing Mark Napier's backhand shot that flicked off Washington goalie Bob Mason's left shoulder at 15:35 of the first period.

That goal was set up when center Keith Acton's pass bounced right over Washington defender Scott Stevens' stick at the blueline to Napier, who skated in for the quick backhander. It was the second time Stevens had "given away" a goal in as many nights, Murray said.

"Last night and tonight were not banner nights for Scott," Murray said. "However, after the goal (tonight), he kind of shook it off."

The Capitals began the second period carrying over 1:16 remaining on a power play and converted.

With just 14 seconds remaining on a holding penalty to Minnesota's Neal Broten, Christian took a pass from Darren Veitch near the faceoff circle to the right of Meloche and quickly slid the puck past the crease to Bengt Gustafsson, waiting alone at the other side of the goal.

Gustafsson easily slapped the puck past Meloche's left side as the goalie, watching Christian, recovered too late.

Stevens, whose pass to Christian (who then went to Veitch) set up the goal, ran interference for the Capitals in front of Meloche.

It was Gustafsson's first goal of the season.

The Capitals jumped to a 2-1 lead less than four minutes later when Gary Sampson, left unguarded in front of the goal, put his stick in front of Bob Gould's centering pass and sent the puck into the goal.

Gustafsson dug out the North Stars' attempt to clear the puck and received an assist for his efforts.

But the North Stars answered with a power play goal at 7:53 when Napier zipped a slap shot past Mason from 10 feet in front of the goal. He was fed perfectly by Brad Maxwell as Veitch tried to defend.

That was the last goal to slip by Mason, who stopped 23 Minnesota shots to improve his record to 3-1-1 as an NHL goalie.

Said Murray: "He is encouraging me more and more to play him."