A 4-0 lead over the lowly Pittsburgh Penguins after nine minutes should have meant an easy time for the Washington Capitals tonight. In these days of struggle, however, there apparently is no such thing.

The Penguins rallied within a goal and had numerous chances before snakebit Mike Gartner netted his 48th with 1:54 left to ease the pressure. Alan Haworth then scored into an empty net to wrap up a 7-4 victory for Washington.

The Capitals, who have not lost here in their last nine visits, extended their unbeaten streak against the Penguins to 12. They lead the season series, 5-0-1, with the same teams closing the regular schedule at Capital Centre Sunday at 5.

Gary Sampson, Gaetan Duchesne, Larry Murphy and Bob Carpenter scored on four successive shots against goalie Denis Herron in the first period. Although one was a rebound, another a deflection and two on breakaways, many in the crowd of 9,440 derisively cheered Herron's routine saves the rest of the period.

Over the next 49 minutes, the fans changed their tune. Only Bob Gould, on a rebound, was able to beat Herron, who ended with 33 saves. A couple of crazy bounces helped the Penguins close the gap and after Mike Bullard's rebound made it 5-4 early in the third period, Pittsburgh applied considerable pressure in a bid for a tie.

Washington goalie Al Jensen, winning for the seventh time in his last eight starts, gloved Bullard's drive on a breakaway and moved out to stop Moe Mantha's tough shot. Kevin McCarthy came close twice, shooting wide from the slot and shoving the puck across the crease into a corner. Even while short-handed, the Penguins threatened, as Jensen blocked John Chabot's drive.

Finally, Sampson got the puck in Pittsburgh's end and passed it to Gartner, unguarded in front. He lifted it over the helpless Herron and a lot of pressure was removed. Gartner had hit two posts in the second period; in the first 15 seconds of the game, he twice was wide on good chances.

Asked if the goal made him feel better, he said: "That's an understatement. I've had a lot of chances the last few games. I've been streaky during the season; sometimes they go in when they shouldn't and sometimes they won't go in no matter what I do.

"It's unfortunate that it's happening when I'm trying to get 50 goals, but maybe it'll work out for the best and I'll be on an upswing when the playoffs begin. It's nice to get 50, but it's a lot more important to have a hot streak in the playoffs.

"Gary made a good play on that goal. It was just me and the goalie and I had time to get set, see where he was and make sure he wasn't where I shot the puck."

Murphy and Gould not only scored for Washington; each was the victim of a bad bounce that put the puck into the Capitals' net.

Murphy scored on a first-period breakaway, skating unchallenged in from the blueline to deke Herron and backhand the puck behind him.

"I got the puck right off the blueline and everything just opened up," Murphy said. "I was surprised. They probably figured I'd shoot as soon as I got it, because the defenseman covered the forward in front and never made a move toward me."

Late in the second period, with Washington ahead, 5-2, Jensen stopped a shot by Wayne Babych. The rebound struck Murphy's skate and slid across the goal line for Babych's second goal of the game.

"I could see it going in and I reached for it," Murphy said, "but by the time I got to it, it was over by four inches."

Gould had scored a minute earlier, converting a rebound of Scott Stevens' drive from the left point.

"The puck hit someone's skate -- I thought it came off the goalie, but they told me it was one of the defensemen," Gould said. "It came right to me. I shot it off his goal pad into the net."

Gould's bad moment came late in the first period, when Doug Jarvis won a faceoff from Mitch Lamoureux in the circle at Jensen's right. As Jarvis pulled it back, the puck hit Gould and caromed between Jensen's legs to make it 4-2.

"I was skating out to get to the point man and it went off my pad," Gould said.

Coach Bryan Murray invited several weary players to sit this one out, but only Bengt Gustafsson accepted. One who played was Carpenter, despite flu, and he was rewarded with No. 1 star status and his 52nd goal. He scored on a first-period breakaway, as he skated down the right wing, embarrassed defenseman Mike Rowe with an outside move and slipped the puck between Herron's pads.

"I was pretty sick, but I haven't missed a game and I didn't want to miss this one," Carpenter said. "I had a lot of chances. I should have had more than one."

With Peter Andersson nursing a sore back, rookie Kevin Hatcher made his NHL debut as Stevens' defensive partner and distinguished himself. Several times he relieved Penguins of the puck in one-on-one situations, including a big third-period play on rookie Mario Lemieux, who set up Babych's first goal to earn his 99th point.

"Kevin really played well," Murray said. "He stayed home and never got in trouble with the puck."

As for the struggle after the early lead, Murray said: "It's a habit of ours when we get a chance to really put a team away. We're too anxious to score goals and we play loose, no matter how much we talk about it."