The last time Washington goaltender Pete Peeters faced the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was shelled, 8-1. Last night he was given a return match, with far different results.

He stopped 20 shots over the first two periods while the outplayed Capitals built a two-goal lead and took the heart out of the Penguins, eventually posting a 5-3 victory.

The result maintained the Capitals' status quo, a first-place Patrick Division tie with Philadelphia, which beat the New York Islanders, 4-2. Each team has three games left, including Sunday's head-on collision at the Spectrum.

"It was an important win, after being psyched out a bit over the weekend with no chance to regroup from the loss of Mike Gartner and Gus Bengt Gustafsson," said Coach Bryan Murray. "In the first period, we had some emotion, but we weren't into the game headwise. Then the second period we were just outplayed. Pete Peeters probably had eight real good stops in the first two periods."

"It was a good workout," Peeters said. "This is what a team needs some nights. When they're in trouble, a goalie has to come up big until they get untracked. Then they got untracked and played really well in the third period."

Asked if the 8-1 disaster was in his mind before the game, he replied: "Not really. I think I've matured enough to stick those things away."

Both teams felt the turning point was Kevin Hatcher's second-period goal that raised Washington's lead to 4-2, after Pittsburgh had pressed hard in a bid to tie it. His shot from the right point was deflected far out by Dave Hannan and the puck popped high in the air, landing in front of the crease and rolling past goalie Gilles Meloche, who was screened by Lou Franceschetti.

"It was kind of a fluke and anytime you're on a roll and give up a fluke goal, it really hurts you," said Hatcher, who was collecting his third goal in three games.

"We were all over them in the second period and instead of being a goal down, we're down two," Meloche said. "We were working hard, but nothing was going our way."

"You've got to put it out of your mind, because there's nothing you can do when it's in the net," Hannan said. "We lost the game and that's the bottom line."

It was a big loss, because the Penguins still trail the New York Rangers by three points for the last playoff berth and have only three games left, including a Sunday windup in New York.

A key factor in the Penguins' flop was Mario Lemieux's inability to generate any offense. Lemieux, the NHL's No. 2 scorer with 137 points, was blanked last night and managed only one goal and four assists in seven games against Washington.

This time, in Gustafsson's absence, the task of shadowing Lemieux was turned over to Bob Gould, who not only executed it admirably but also provided the goal that stretched the Capitals' lead to 5-2.

"I think Bobby discouraged him early in the game," Murray said. "He put the stick on him, he played close to him a lot of the time and he couldn't get untracked. Maybe he was frustrated; maybe he was tired."

"I thought he'd do more," said Gould, who had been too ill to practice Monday. "He didn't seem to be trying to do as much as before. I tried to stay with him from their blueline back, play man to man on him and let the defense take care of the other guys."

Peeters foiled Ron Duguay from close range and Craig Simpson on a breakaway before Hannan stole the puck from Scott Stevens and scored a short-handed goal to put Pittsburgh in front.

Larry Murphy, the hero of Saturday's tie in Hartford, quickly got that one back, on his second rebound after Meloche made the initial save on Alan Haworth.

"It came bouncing back to me and I whacked at it and it bounced over him," said Murphy, who was reaching 20 goals for the second time in six NHL seasons. "It was just a little bouncy shot with not much on it. It was important, because they'd gone up a goal and the sooner we get it back, the better off we are."

Craig Laughlin put Washington ahead to stay with 63 seconds left in the first period, on a beautiful breakaway that saw him take Rod Langway's pass, deke Meloche into a premature flop and put a backhander in the empty net. It was No. 28 for Laughlin and it came after Peeters had survived some intense pressure.

Greg Adams deflected Murphy's pass behind Meloche at 2:33 of the second period. It was the Capitals' only shot in the first 17 minutes, but it was not until Pittsburgh's 10th shot, at 12:40, that the Penguins could beat Peeters. John Chabot netted that one, on Troy Loney's two-on-one feed.

The Capitals' 12th home sellout of 18,130 increased the season attendance to a record 568,067.