The New Jersey Devils follow the Washington Capitals into Met Center on Monday, and the Devils' coach, Doug Carpenter, was on hand early to watch the Capitals defeat the Minnesota North Stars Saturday night, 6-3.

Carpenter spent most of the evening extolling the virtues of Washington center Bengt Gustafsson, who had one goal and four assists and was named the No. 1 star. Carpenter made it plain he would love to have Gustafsson setting up plays for his struggling Devils.

"He's (Washington's) best player," he said. "He's an all-round, smart, creative player. He's always making good plays. He gets guys frustrated and they take a lot of runs at him, but it never seems to bother him. Every time we play Washington, he's making outstanding plays to beat us. I'm just glad that this time he's beating someone else."

Carpenter was passing out the unsolicited praise unaware that Gustafsson had considered sitting out the game because of the debilitating effects of a flu bug that has been bothering him for 10 days.

"I felt pretty decent before the game Friday (a 7-5 loss to the Islanders), but I got worn out and I had nothing left afterward," Gustafsson said. "I wasn't sure I could play tonight, but I took short, snappy shifts, and it worked out all right."

Gustafsson's five points gave him 53, two behind club coleaders Mike Gartner and Dave Christian. But, as usual, Gustafsson was an important factor defensively as well as on the scoreboard.

Gustafsson, goaltender Al Jensen and defensemen Rod Langway and Scott Stevens were superb in killing off 63 seconds of a two-man shortage while Washington was nursing a 1-0 lead.

That early goal was produced by Christian off a Gustafsson setup. The score became 2-0 when Gustafsson converted his only shot of the night at the finish of a short-handed two-man break with Christian against goaltender Jon Casey. Larry Murphy got that play going with a quick pass out of the Washington end after Minnesota's Neal Broten lost the puck.

The short-handed goal was Gustafsson's fourth of the season, a club record. Dennis Maruk, now a North Star, held the mark of three.

"That was kind of funny," Gustafsson said. "I was out against the power play with David (Christian) and we were just thinking about defending at first. Then we decided to go after them, and it paid off.

"The goaltender charged out at David and left an empty net. I couldn't believe that, but you just take it and say, 'Thank you.' "

Gustafsson's patience helped provide Darren Veitch with the opportunity to score the Capitals' third goal. Gustafsson made a superb play, drawing three North Stars toward him and feeding Veitch for an open shot, but Casey made the save. Undaunted, Gustafsson repeated the maneuver, Veitch raised his aim a bit and it was 3-0.

Christian moved into the slot when Gustafsson picked off a Scott Bjugstad pass in the third period, and Gustafsson quickly put the puck on Christian's stick for his second goal of the game and 28th of the season. His career high is 29.

"Gus certainly gave me two tonight," Christian said. "For not feeling that good, he played a great game. Gus doesn't have to be moving anywhere to fool people. He can stand still and fake out three guys, which is about what he did on Veitchie's goal.

"From playing with him, I know that if I get open, he's going to get the puck there. It's too bad he doesn't get more credit around the league."

Gustafsson, 27, earlier indicated that this might be his last season, but today he said that retirement was far from his thoughts.

"Everything is fine, and I'm rolling now and so is the team," said Gustafsson. "We still have a lot of games to go, and I am concerned about my future, but we'll see what happens after the season. Right now, it's fun."