Two goals behind in the second period, the Washington Capitals suddenly shook the New York Islanders off their heels tonight.

Goals by Bob Carpenter, Alan Haworth, Dave Christian and Bengt Gustafsson carried the Capitals to a two-goal advantage, and they hung on to beat their rivals, 5-4.

It was close down the stretch, after Bryan Trottier closed the gap to one with 2:12 remaining. Washington goalie Al Jensen made several tough saves and defenseman Scott Stevens smothered a rebound by Mike Bossy to help out as the Islanders repeatedly won faceoffs in the Capitals' end and fired away.

In dealing the Islanders their first home loss in 10 games, second-place Washington expanded its advantage in the Patrick Division to eight points over third-place New York, which had been closing ground steadily since Christmas.

"When the New York Islanders are up, 3-1, in this building, they bury most teams, but not the Washington Capitals," said Craig Laughlin, who scored the first Washington goal and continued to play despite a savage slash on the right arm. "This is a big lift for us, but I hope everybody realizes we're going for first place, not second."

The Capitals play in Montreal Wednesday and in Philadelphia Saturday. They trail the first-place Flyers by eight points.

Laughlin matched his one-season high of 52 points when he scored at the finish of a two-on-one with Haworth before New York put a shot on goal. But Mikko Makela and Paul Boutilier took advantage of errors to give the Islanders the lead at 2-1 before the first period ended.

Early in the second period, Duane Sutter deflected a Trottier shot past Jensen after Trottier picked off Christian's clearing pass in the Washington end.

"When you throw the puck and see Trottier getting it at the blueline, you know you're in trouble," Christian said. "I just didn't get it up in the air. It was 3-1, but there was a lot of game left and we wanted to go out and get them."

The Capitals did just that, outshooting New York by 17-12 during the second period, which ended with Washington ahead, 4-3.

Carpenter began the comeback with a drive from the right-wing circle for his 19th goal, after he gained shooting room by criss-crossing with Mike Gartner, who needed six stitches in his right hand when he was slashed earlier in the game.

Haworth's 27th goal tied it, as he cut off Ken Morrow's clearing attempt at the left point, skated into the slot and slid the puck between the legs of goalie Kelly Hrudey. His second point of the game gave Haworth 57, two more than his high in five previous NHL seasons.

"It feels good to have a career high with 24 games left," Haworth said. "I'm glad it's coming at this point in my career, when I'm 25, although of course I wish it had come earlier."

When New York's Stefan Persson was penalized for hooking Gaetan Duchesne, it was time for Christian to atone for his earlier mistake.

Larry Murphy's shot from the right point was deflected and the puck came to a stop at the feet of Greg Adams. Reacting quickly, Adams passed to Christian, unguarded near the left post. Christian put it in for his 30th goal and Washington was ahead to stay.

Stung by the Capitals' onslaught, the Islanders woke up late in the period and had several good chances.

Midway through the third period, Duchesne carried the puck over the New York blueline and ragged it until Gustafsson broke for the net ahead of Trottier. Duchesne's perfect pass was tipped into the net for Gustafsson's sixth goal in six games and his fourth game-winner in Washington's last four victories.

The Capitals were still jockeying for position when linesman Kevin Collins dropped the puck on a faceoff late in the game. New York controlled it as Haworth came in late, then Jensen dropped a shot by Bossy. There was a pileup in front and Trottier shoved the puck over the line. Despite Washington protests, referee Bill McCreary allowed the score.

Jensen made a big save on Makela with 1:50 left and the Islanders kept pressing as they won virtually every faceoff. With Hrudey off for a sixth skater, Jensen blocked a drive by Tomas Jonsson and Stevens moved to the goalie's side and stopped Bossy's rebound, then fell on the puck with 21 seconds on the clock.

"That was a great play by Scott," Jensen said. "I didn't see it, because I was flat on the ice, but I was happy to see him there."

"I saw Bossy coming down the slot and I went down on my knees," Stevens said. "I was lucky to cover it. He doesn't miss many like that."