The Washington Capitals' special teams were the difference last night in a 2-1 NHL victory over a weary band of Vancouver Canucks who made a special effort to brighten a pointless road trip.

A power-play goal by Dave Christian and a short-handed goal by Gaetan Duchesne made a loser of Richard Brodeur, despite his superb 31-save performance.

While the Canucks' winless streak was reaching nine games, Washington goalie Al Jensen was extending his unbeaten string to eight. Although tested only 22 times, Jensen came up with big stops on Marc Crawford and Stan Smyl in the last 3 1/2 minutes to preserve the win.

If many in the Capital Centre crowd of 12,431 seemed nervous down the stretch, Washington Coach Bryan Murray claimed to be unconcerned, even after Brodeur had stopped all 17 shots that came his way in the first period.

"I felt pretty good about tonight," Murray said. "Even if they had gotten back in it, I felt we were the team that would dig down and win it."

It was not until their 21st shot, at 7:17 of the second period, that the Capitals were able to put a puck past Brodeur, and Vancouver penalties were the key factor.

Thirty seconds after Brent Peterson was called for holding, Stan Smyl hit Washington's Peter Andersson in the face with his stick. Although Smyl pursued referee Dan Marouelli around the ice in protest, he wound up sitting next to Peterson for 90 seconds in the penalty box.

During that lengthy two-man advantage, the Capitals managed only a long shot by Mike Gartner. But at the exact second that Peterson's penalty expired, Bob Carpenter threaded a pass between the feet of defender Jiri Bubla to Christian, who beat Brodeur with a backhander.

"It was a good pass by Bobby that made the goal," said Christian, whose 10th power-play score left him second in the NHL to the 14 of Philadelphia's Tim Kerr. "I came from out of the play and took off for the net and Bobby put the puck right between the defenseman's skates onto my stick."

The way things had been going, Christian was confident that eventually the Capitals would find the right formula to beat Brodeur.

"I've seen him like that before," Christian said. "He's a good goaltender. We knew we had to keep going and keep up the pressure, and as long as they hadn't scored, we were okay."

Duchesne's short-handed goal at 18:02 was a matter of justice being served. In a similar situation in the first period, he was robbed by Brodeur and then shot the rebound off a post.

This time, with Craig Laughlin off for tripping, Bob Gould skated down the middle and passed the puck off to Duchesne in the left-wing circle. While Brodeur was forced to think about Gould and Rod Langway in the three-on-one situation, Duchesne fired away and beat him on the short side.

It was Washington's seventh short-handed goal of the season, one short of league-leading Edmonton, and it was the first goal in 17 games for Duchesne, who had been virtually excluded from penalty-killing duty until Doug Jarvis was traded Friday.

"When Gouldie stepped forward it gave us a three on one," Duchesne said. "I let him gain the blueline and then I skated in and he put a good pass on my stick. I thought about passing to Rod, but I had the shot. I just tried to put it on net and I finally got one."

The Canucks, playing their 17th road game of the season and their fourth in six nights, could have been excused if they subsequently had turned their attention to the flight home. Instead, they applied considerable offensive pressure and it paid off in a goal by Smyl at 4:20 of the third period.

When Petri Skriko skated down the left wing in pursuit of a loose puck, Jensen unwisely drifted far out to challenge him, despite Langway's proximity to the Finn. Skriko was able to maintain possession and passed to Smyl for a tap into the vacated net.

Jensen atoned for that mistake by blocking the last five Vancouver shots, with Crawford and Smyl getting good close-range chances.

The game contained three fairly even fights involving NHL heavyweights, as Washington's Dwight Schofield battled Craig Coxe and Glen Cochrane, and Cochrane also tangled with Ed Kastelic. Murray, in effect, was the matchmaker for the Schofield-Coxe bout at the 34-second mark, since he put Schofield in the starting lineup after learning that the Canucks were starting Coxe, who had been battered badly by Schofield here Nov. 15 and was known to be seeking revenge.

"I've been taking a good look at our division and I think we have to take a tougher approach in this building," Murray said. "My approach from here on in is going to be just that -- not fighting, but making more contact, taking the body. I want to make it more difficult to play against us in this building."

*Flyers 4, Rangers 0: Murray Craven and Brian Propp scored two goals apiece and Bob Froese got his second shutout of the season as Philadelphia beat visiting New York.

The victory ended the Flyers' three-game losing streak. The Rangers have lost 11 straight regular season games against the Flyers since March 14, 1984.

*Nordiques 4, Islanders 1: In Uniondale, N.Y., Michel Goulet and Brent Ashton scored first-period goals, all that Quebec needed to beat New York.

Denis Potvin scored the Islanders' goal, which tied him with Bobby Orr for the NHL record for career points by a defenseman with 915. With 265 goals, Potvin is within five of Orr's record for goals by a defenseman.

*Devils 5, Penguins 1: In Pittsburgh, Greg Adams and Peter McNab scored goals 38 seconds apart in the second period as New Jersey ended Pittsburgh's five-game winning streak.

*Whalers 7, Bruins 2: In Hartford, Sylvain Turgeon scored his 14th and 15th goals and got one assist, Ron Francis had one goal and three assists and Kevin Dineen had a goal and two assists against Boston.

*Kings 3, Jets 2: Bryan Erikson's first goal of the year at 17:44 of the third period lifted Los Angeles in Winnipeg. Marcel Dionne scored his 500th goal as a King.

*Oilers 8, North Stars 3: In Edmonton, Jari Kurri had three goals, Glenn Anderson had two goals and four assists and Wayne Gretzky had a goal and four assists against Minnesota.

*Canadiens 6, Maple Leafs 3: In Toronto, center Bobby Smith scored two goals and assisted on two to lead Montreal. Smith scored in the first and second periods, his second goal providing the Canadiens with a 4-2 lead.

*Blues 5, Red Wings 4: Mark Hunter's bad-angle shot from the right faceoff circle beat Detroit rookie goalie Mark LaForest with four seconds remaining in St. Louis. Warren Young scored three goals for the Red Wings.