The Washington Capitals will go into the big series against Philadelphia on a winning note. The Capitals survived their usual struggle with the New Jersey Devils last night, getting a 4-1 victory before a Capital Centre crowd of 11,151.

That maintained the Capitals' four-point Patrick Division lead over the Flyers, who beat the New York Islanders in overtime and also figure to be on a high for the Capital confrontation at the Spectrum Thursday and the Centre Friday.

There was plenty of hitting and grinding last night before and after Lou Franceschetti's second-period goal broke a 1-1 tie and put Washington ahead to stay.

Al Jensen made his first appearance in the Washington net since Jan. 9 and stopped 19 shots, with the only New Jersey goal coming on Aaron Broten's power-play rebound that created a 1-1 tie early in the second period.

But the major topic afterward involved Rod Langway's third-period goal that made it 3-1 and eased the pressure for the home club, which already has clinched a playoff berth, while dimming the Devils' chances of attaining one.

Langway picked off Uli Hiemer's pass, skated to the top of the left-wing circle, then took an accurate slap shot. Chico Resch gloved it, but as his arm swung back the puck sailed into the air.

The sticks of Langway, Resch and New Jersey defenseman Phil Russell reached high in search of the puck, which hit Resch's stick and dropped behind him into the net.

Referee Don Koharski signaled a goal and immediately found himself surrounded by angry Devils, Resch throwing his gloves before joining the argument. The gist of their protest was that Langway's stick, obviously well above his shoulder, had propelled the puck into the net. Had that been the case, the goal would have been disallowed.

However, the television replay backed up Koharski, indicating that although Langway's stick hit Resch's stick, it was only the larger goalie stick that made contact with the puck.

"Chico makes the save and the puck pops up in the air," Koharski said. "Chico makes contact with a high stick and I signal that. Langway is on top of him, of course. The next thing I know the puck's in the net and I signal a legal goal."

"I shot and the puck went up in the air," Langway said. "I saw the puck coming and I got my stick out of the way. He (Resch) tried to swing his stick and I think he hit my stick and the puck went off me into the net.

"It was a judgment call and he (Koharski) made the right call. If it had gone the other way, he would have had a heck of an argument from me. Every time we play this team, it's the same thing, a one-goal game going into the third period. Last time they got the bounces; this time we did."

Resch refused to believe that he directed the puck into the net and made some strong statements about official favoritism toward teams that are higher in the standings.

"I'm looking at the puck coming down and he's coming in and three of our guys' sticks are there," he said. "As he hit the puck, he hit my stick. But there's only one guy that's going to propel it into the net. It went straight in.

"It's just logical. He's trying to knock it in and we're trying to knock it away. Why couldn't the referee be logical? It's such an obvious call. They couldn't have had any complaint.

"But when you're a lower team playing a higher team down the stretch, there's an influence out there, I don't care what anyone says. People must be afraid we'll beat these teams and they ensure we don't.

"That just killed the game. We're 2-1 and we're right in there. We play all year for this, and look what happens."

The Devils, last in the Patrick Division, remained five points behind the New York Rangers in the battle for the final playoff spot.

For a while, it appeared that Jensen might never be tested, as the Devils did not get a shot on goal until 15:57 of the first period.

He seemed rather tentative until late in the second period, when he was tripped by the Devils' Tim Higgins and responded with a slash that gave New Jersey a power play.

Suddenly, Jensen was challenging the shooters. He made three good stops during the short-handed situation and afterward Coach Bryan Murray said, "Al played well for the first time back. There were times when he tried to do too much, but he was quick going across and overall I was pleased."

If anybody had reason to be displeased, it was Hiemer. He was the man caught up ice when Dave Christian converted Craig Laughlin's pass on a two-on-one to open the scoring. Then he was the missing defender when Franceschetti, open in front, took Mike Gartner's pass and scored the game winner.

For a final fillip, it was Hiemer's giveaway that set up Langway's controversial game breaker.

The assist on Franceschetti's goal enabled Gartner to tie the club record of 249, held by Dennis Maruk.

Bob Gould completed the scoring with 2:30 remaining after some dazzling passes by Greg Adams and Dean Evason.

The two teams were unable to skate yesterday morning because a construction crew knocked out power to the area and the outage turned the Centre ice to slush.