Earlier this week, the New York Rangers shipped half a dozen of last year's regulars to the minors. It was enough of a spur, for one night at least, to drive the Rangers to a 4-2 opening National Hockey League victory over the Washington Capitals.

Bengt Gustafsson scored two power play goals, but he was the only Capital to beat John Vanbiesbrouck, who stopped 27 shots to end a personal seven-game losing streak.

Washington, which never led, was dropping its opener for the third straight year, a fact noted by unhappy Coach Bryan Murray.

"We're back to our old habits and I hope that's all it is," Murray said. "We had a lot of chances in the second period, but again we couldn't finish. The Rangers played with a lot of emotion. Their young guys seem to have great desire."

One of those youngsters, center Mike Ridley, produced the game-winning goal in his NHL debut. Ridley was so unsure of his future that he registered for classes at the University of Manitoba before coming to the Rangers' camp.

"I was really surprised the way they shook everything up," Ridley said. "I don't know what was going on or what they're thinking. I just know I've got to play awfully hard if I want to stay here.

"When they make a decision like that, you know that you'd better play the way they think you can, or you won't be around either. They proved nobody has a sure job and we were all aware of it when we went out there tonight."

The 17,490 fans certainly had no complaint about the big shakeup that saw Glen Hanlon, Ron Scott, Pierre Larouche, Mike Rogers, Steve Richmond and Nick Fotiu demoted. Unlike some recent seasons, they cheered the Rangers when they skated on the ice and they kept it up most of the night.

Ridley's goal was a big one, because it came at the 40-second mark of the third period and boosted the Rangers' advantage to 3-1, after the Capitals had closed the second period with a futile offensive surge.

Washington goalie Pat Riggin tried to play the puck behind his net, but he flubbed the pass and it went right onto the stick of Ranger Jan Erixon. Riggin, who dove out front to block Erixon's shot, had no chance when Ridley pounced on the rebound.

"It happened very quickly," Ridley said. "When we went back for the draw, I was still kind of shaking a bit."

Gustafsson closed the gap to 3-2 at 2:34, converting Craig Laughlin's pass while Greg Adams, propelled into the net by Ranger Barry Beck, was wiping out Vanbiesbrouck on a play reminiscent of his second-overtime elimination of Islander Kelly Hrudey in last spring's playoffs.

The Capitals were unable to produce the tying score and New York finally wrapped it up on an empty-net goal by Bob Brooke, after Ridley had hooked down puck carrier Dave Christian in center ice.

The Rangers jumped in front in the first period as Mark Pavelich converted a give-and-go with James Patrick. When Washington's Scott Stevens missed a blueline check on Patrick, rookie Kevin Hatcher was the lone defender back. He went for Patrick and Pavelich was left alone for a point-blank shot.

Gustafsson tied it with 47 seconds remaining in the first period. Mike Gartner's centering pass struck Adams' stick and Gustafsson scooped up the puck and slid it into the net before Beck, who was battling Adams, could react.

"I came full speed from the corner," Gustafsson said. "Beck was tied up with Addie and the puck dropped loose behind them. I pushed it ahead for a second and then knocked it in."

Although the Capitals had a 12-3 margin in second-period shots, Ranger Dave Gagner scored the only goal of the second period, banging the puck off Riggin's right hip from the left wing circle. He waited to shoot until Stevens went down, then fired the puck over the defenseman.

With Stevens and Hatcher victimized a second time, Murray broke up his young defensive combination. For the rest of the night, Hatcher was paired with Rod Langway, Stevens with Larry Murphy.

"They got burned a couple of times and I felt it would be best to make a change," Murray said.

Besides another opening defeat, against a team they had beaten five straight times, the Capitals had reason to be concerned about the play of Bob Carpenter, whose sore back was wrapped in bandages.

"He was a little stiff and (with) not playing in the preseason it's real obvious he's not in the best of shape," Murray said. "The biggest thing is not enough game time. He's just not sharp."

For added aggravation, the injury-prone Gustafsson was holding an icepack on his left wrist.

"I jammed it into the boards, but I don't think it's serious," Gustafsson said. "It shouldn't be. I played with it that way most of the game."