A month ago, the Washington Capitals led the Patrick Division by 11 points. Today, they share first place with Philadelphia.

The Flyers completed a sweep of the home-and-home series with Washington by coming away with a 4-2 victory last night before a Capital Centre sellout of 18,130.

Other than the winner, the only resemblance to the Flyers' 9-6 victory of Thursday night was the length of the game. With a free-for-all at the end of the first period occupying all the players on both teams, including the goaltenders, the proceedings once again extended beyond three hours.

Down, 3-1, after 22 minutes, the Capitals closed within one on Scott Stevens' power play score midway through the third period. Forced to play eight minutes of the third period short-handed, however, they came up short, with Mark Howe's empty-net goal wrapping things up for the Flyers.

"We took some bad penalties and put ourselves in a box," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said. "We get some momentum and we're killing a penalty again.

"But there's no question they were the better team. They moved the puck better, they skated better and they made good plays defensively. They were aggressive around the net and they took us out. They were sharper all around. They're on a roll and I can only hope we're not at our peak."

The Flyers now have an edge, with a game in hand to go with the 87 points that match the Capitals' figure, and having taken the season series, 5-1-1, they certainly figure to benefit from the confidence factor should the teams meet again in the playoffs.

"One thing they have to think about is only beating us once," Flyer Brian Propp said. "You don't like to think about something like that, but it's hard to put aside."

If there was a negative aspect for the Flyers, it was the loss of right wing Tim Kerr with a sprained right knee in the second period. Kerr, who has scored 12 goals against the Capitals this season, outskated Rod Langway to avert an icing call, but was unable to stop and crashed feet first into the boards.

"It's not serious and they tell me I won't be out more than a couple of days," Kerr said. "I was lucky. If I didn't wear a brace, the knee would be gone."

The Flyers wasted no time getting started last night, building a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes on goals by Ilkka Sinisalo and Derrick Smith.

It took some good stops by Pat Riggin to keep it that close, although the fans showed little appreciation for the goalie's efforts and cheered derisively when he made routine saves.

When Flyer Rick Tocchet was penalized for cross-checking, Mike Gartner converted a long pass from Larry Murphy for his 42nd goal and Washington was only one down at the intermission.

It was a lengthy intermission. As the buzzer sounded, Stevens and Flyer Peter Zezel became involved in a shoving match and all the players on both teams took part in an extended brawl.

When order finally was restored, five players were ejected -- Capitals Alan Haworth and Lou Franceschetti and Flyers Brad McCrimmon, Ed Hospodar and Glen Cochrane, who had not played a second before earning two game misconduct penalties.

Although the Flyers were assessed 57 minutes to the Capitals' 37, the on-ice situation remained unchanged with the difference being in the game misconduct area. So the Flyers, who ended the first period on a power play, began the second period with Washington's Gaetan Duchesne in the penalty box.

Four seconds after the penalty expired and before Duchesne could become involved, Murray Craven converted Smith's setup for the eventual game winner.

Thereafter, play became less physical and less frenzied, as both teams showed the effects of the shoving and the manpower shortage.

"Everybody was exhausted after the first period," Smith said. "We're a conditioned hockey club and it may have helped us, but losing three players, it was getting a little tiring in the third period."

Riggin had the tougher job in the second period, as the Flyers outshot Washington, 11-6. Then, for further aggravation, Murphy was called for tripping Craven as the second period ended and when he responded by throwing his stick, Murphy was assessed a double minor.

It was hardly a welcome present for somebody who celebrated his 24th birthday yesterday.

Killing off those two penalties and another that quickly followed on Bob Carpenter gave the Capitals a lift and suddenly the game was exciting again.

After goalie Pelle Lindbergh blocked a shot by Darren Veitch, Smith filled the crease on his knees to block Greg Adams' rebound.

Then Thomas Eriksson cleared the puck right onto the stick of Stevens, who put it in the net. The light flashed, but there was no goal, because when Eriksson touched the puck, referee Andy Van Hellemond whistled a cross-checking penalty against Brad Marsh, delayed until the Flyers gained possession.

In a remarkable followup to the incident Thursday in which a whistle deprived Gartner of a goal only to preface his score 20 seconds later on the ensuing power play, Stevens gained revenge with his 19th goal while Marsh was in the box.

Murphy lined a shot off the rear boards and it caromed past Lindbergh into the slot, where Gartner shoved it to the unguarded Stevens. The assist was Gartner's 250th, a club record.

When Rich Sutter was penalized for holding 24 seconds later, the Capitals and the crowd smelled a tie. But it never happened. When Mike McEwen was chased for interference with 3:36 left, the Capitals had little chance to set up a last-ditch surge.