A crowd of 15,000 watched the professional wrestling card at Capital Centre yesterday afternoon. Last night, a sellout of 18,130 watched something similar on ice.

The Washington Capitals were adjudged the winners of the evening program with a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Alan Haworth scored two goals for Washington and goaltender Pete Peeters stopped 26 shots against his old team as the Capitals ended a five-game string of losses to the Flyers. The victory lifted Washington within eight points of first-place Philadelphia in the Patrick Division.

It wasn't pretty to watch, as referee Bryan Lewis whistled 49 penalties, 26 against the Flyers, in a vain attempt to keep things under control. There were 12 scuffles involving every player on the ice except the goaltenders, although only three escalated sufficiently to warrant major penalties.

Most of the madness occurred during the first period, which lasted more than an hour. The Capitals scored on their first two shots, and each time the Flyers reacted to the red light like bulls chasing matadors.

In each case, Lewis recognized the all-hands mayhem that followed with only a coincidental minor apiece -- a questionable decision that probably contributed to the game getting out of hand.

"Isn't this interesting?" Washington Coach Bryan Murray asked rhetorically afterward. "But the penalties are even, so this style obviously is worth trying to use in this league."

The Flyers' disruptive tactics, which involved swarming over the opposition after goals or stoppages in play, did not work, but they might have, except for a sensational short-handed goal by Bengt Gustafsson late in the first period.

Washington's early 2-0 lead, on goals by Bob Carpenter and Haworth 25 seconds apart, was halved by a power-play goal by Ilkka Sinisalo. When Washington's Larry Murphy was penalized for holding, the Flyers threatened to tie it.

Peeters made a big stop on Pelle Eklund after a Washington pass deflected off Scott Stevens' stick to the Swedish rookie. The Capitals cleared the puck to the other end, and Gustafsson checked Brad Marsh off it behind the Flyers' net. Gustafsson circled out and shot, and goalie Darren Jensen made the initial save. But Jensen, who had shut out Washington nine days before at the Spectrum, had no chance on Gustafsson's rebound.

The Capitals' 11th short-handed goal of the season set a club record, and it also provided some breathing space for Washington through the next 21 minutes, until Mike Gartner's 24th goal boosted the score to 4-1.

That was revenge for Gartner, because it followed an incident in which Gartner was assessed a questionable double minor. Gartner and Rick Tocchet were discussing a Gartner high stick when Marsh plowed in from behind, apparently punching Gartner in the face. The penalties were four minutes to Gartner, two to Tocchet and nothing to Marsh.

Asked about the call, supervisor of officials John Ashley, who attended the game, said: "Ask him (Lewis), not me. I'm not out there."

But Washington survived Gartner's extra two minutes, and when Flyers tough guy Dave Brown was penalized for high sticking, the Capitals took full advantage.

Rookie Kevin Hatcher, who was benched on Friday when the Capitals beat New Jersey, 4-3, skated down the middle and adroitly dished the puck off to Gartner in the right-wing circle. Gartner beat Jensen with a low drive on the short side.

Haworth's second goal, on a fine setup by Gustafsson with each team a man short, boosted the Capitals' advantage to 5-1. Then the Flyers got a consolation short-handed goal when Murphy tried to break up a two-on-one and wound up sliding into his own net with the puck.

The game, which lasted 3 hours 10 minutes, was prolonged by two brawls with nine seconds left. After the initial all-hands banging and shoving, Lewis as usual assessed coincidental minors, to the Flyers' Doug Crossman and the Capitals' Bob Gould.

As the puck was dropped on the ensuing faceoff, Brown went after Stevens, and a lengthy fight resulted. Brown was charged with a game misconduct, his fourth, and will sit out the next two games on an automatic suspension.

"I was talking to (the Flyers' Peter) Zezel, and I had my head down for the faceoff," Stevens said. "Somebody yelled and I saw Brown charge me with his gloves off. I was kind of glad.

"You've got to use your head and take your licks or you'll wind up in the penalty box. There's not much you can do about it, but it's nice to be able to get some revenge at the end of the game."

Murray, who complained bitterly to Lewis long after the game, said he realized how difficult it was for Stevens and Rod Langway to back off when the Flyers were bumping them from behind and trying to lure them into fights.

"At the end of the first period, Rod said to me, 'I'm just about ready,' " Murray said. "I just told him not to get involved. But I asked Lewis, 'Do you want us to turtle (fall to the ice and cover up)? We're not fighting Dave Brown, except for one guy (Dwight Schofield).

"We try to play 20 guys, except one, who contribute to winning. I don't think that was the case with their club on this occasion. They had a number of guys just out there to try to take a higher-caliber player off the ice."

The game was a reversal of the Flyers' 4-0 triumph in Philadelphia Jan. 9. On that occasion, Philadelphia jumped ahead early and there were only 16 penalties and one fight, involving Brown and Washington's Greg Adams and Ed Kastelic.

It has long been a Flyers tradition, however, to try to distract a team that has taken a lead. Yesterday, Home Box Office showed films of the Dave Schultz era on Part One of "Not So Great Moments in Sports." Last night, there was plenty of material for a future segment.