The Washington Capitals have the second-best defensive record in the National Hockey League. The Buffalo Sabres are No. 1, and last night the Capitals found out why.

Goaltender Tom Barrasso stopped 23 shots and the close-checking Sabres handed Washington its first shutout in 137 games, 4-0, before 17,184 at Capital Centre.

Lindy Ruff and Dave Andreychuk each scored twice for the Sabres, who maintained their second-place tie with Quebec in the Adams Division, two points behind Montreal. Washington remained four points ahead of runner-up Philadelphia in the Patrick Division.

The Capitals have beaten Buffalo only three times in 44 meetings and have defeated Sabres Coach Scotty Bowman only once in 47 tries. But they entered this game with high hopes, having ended Bowman's perfect record in the clubs' most recent meeting here Nov. 17.

"We haven't played as tight a game as we did tonight all year," said Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, as he was savoring No. 710. "I don't think you can do that for 80 games; it's too much of a grinding type of play.

"We know these guys can score if you don't check them, particularly (Bob) Carpenter and (Mike) Gartner. That was our top priority. We didn't have many scoring chances, but we didn't need them."

Three of Buffalo's four goals came on funny bounces, which was noted by Bowman and his counterpart, Bryan Murray.

"In this type of game, it's not the picturesque goals that win, but a bounce here and a bounce there," Bowman said. "Our second goal was a big one, because we're not a big team to come from behind."

Murray thought the second goal was a big one, too, and he insisted that Ruff had kicked it into the net. He also contended that Ruff's first goal should have been disallowed because the Sabres' Mike Foligno cross-checked defender Mike McEwen out of Ruff's path.

"It doesn't mean much now, but at the time it was important," Murray said. "We might have played all night and not scored. We had very few chances."

After 27 minutes of hard-hitting, scoreless hockey, Ruff produced the game winner. Washington's captain, Rod Langway, deflected the pass by Sabres captain Gil Perreault in a two-on-one situation and the puck sailed high into the air. It landed on edge in front of the net and, when goalie Pat Riggin came out to battle Foligno for it, Ruff followed up the play and scored.

"It was the Midas touch," said Ruff, who doubled his seasonal production last night. "Mike reached up and took the man (McEwen) out and when Riggin came out, it made it easy for me."

The pivotal play of the game came three minutes later. Barrasso blocked a shot by Bengt Gustafsson and Scott Stevens banged the rebound toward the half-empty net.

Although Stevens raised his stick in triumph, the puck went wide of the right post and Perreault jumped on it, sending a quick outlet pass to Phil Housley. After Riggin blocked Housley's shot, Ruff put the rebound past him in a fashion that satisfied referee Ron Hoggarth, if not Murray. It gave Ruff, who sat out 41 games with shoulder damage, his first two-goal night since the 1983 playoffs against Boston.

"I couldn't believe it could miss," Stevens said of his offtarget rebound. "I hit it right toward the net and I put my arms up and then it went by on the other side. It really made a difference."

Barrasso stopped four shots on a Washington power play early in the third period, then Andreychuk put it away. He accepted John Tucker's pass out of the right-wing corner and sent the puck past Riggin.

Andreychuk completed the scoring with 4:17 left, netting his 30th goal and fifth in five games. Mal Davis dumped the puck off the glass behind the Washington net and the puck caromed out to Andreychuk for an easy score.

"It hit the steel plate between two sections of glass and then it hit the top of the net," Andreychuk said. "By the time he (Riggin) turned around, I had the puck in the net."

Barrasso was blanking the Capitals for the first time since Greg Millen did it in Hartford Oct. 19, 1983. It was Barrasso's fifth shutout this season, tying a club record set by Don Edwards in 1977-78.

"Whatever they shot, I stopped," Barrasso said. "But my teammates did a good job keeping them away from the net. We haven't been playing well and we were due for a game like that."

Washington did not put a shot on goal in the first 12 minutes of the game and the scoreless first period featured more solid checks than scoring chances. There also were a couple of weird incidents.

The first came with play stopped after Foligno was knocked off balance by a teammate and went sliding into the Buffalo net. During the stoppage, Ruff chased Carpenter and was short-circuited when Stevens crosschecked him on the back of the head. Ruff and Stevens were sent off with double minors.

"Carpenter hit Housley from behind after the whistle; it had nothing to do with Foligno," said Ruff, more noted for his muscle than for the goal scoring that followed.

With Buffalo on a power play, Langway lost his stick and was hooked down by Andreychuk in the Washington end. Play moved out of the zone and Langway took advantage of the situation to hold Andreychuk on the ice, thereby preventing the Sabres from crossing the blueline.

Although no whistle sounded, linesman John D'Amico skated over and separated the two players, the action continuing in center ice.