Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner gave the Washington Capitals more than a spiritual lift last night when they trudged out on injured knees for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Carpenter scored the game-winning goal, with Gartner assisting, as the Capitals defeated the New York Islanders, 3-1, in the opener of their best-of-five Patrick Division semifinal series at Capital Centre.

A sellout crowd of 18,130 gave the pair a deafening cheer on their first appearance and the Capitals played like a team with a mission thereafter. With goalie Pete Peeters stopping 32 shots, including 18 in the third period, and Gaetan Duchesne shutting out Mike Bossy, who has been a nemesis to the Capitals, Washington displayed the team defense it will need to win this series.

"We played the type of game we had to play to win," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "Pete Peeters made some big saves late when they put on the pressure. He was very cool and he helped the defense by moving the puck. We felt we needed that kind of poise and experience and he gave it to us tonight."

Kelly Hrudey, starting in place of Bill Smith, had an outstanding game in the New York goal, although he lost his cool at one point and drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Game 2 will be played at Capital Centre tonight and the Capitals, although confident, are not congratulating themselves.

"The first game is always one of the biggest, because you can control your own destiny now," Carpenter said. "But nobody is jumping for joy. Right now, we're thinking about the first period tomorrow night. That's going to be very, very important."

Both Carpenter and Gartner were confident they would be able to play again tonight. Each had about 12 minutes of action last night and the amount of swelling in their knees has been diminishing with each test.

"It was sore after I skated yesterday, but it wasn't that bad this afternoon," Carpenter said. "This brace is fantastic. It keeps the extension from reaching the point where it really hurts. It's actually easier for me to skate than walk. Anyway, this is the playoffs and, if I have to play with pain, I'll play with pain."

The decision to start Carpenter and Gartner was made after the warmup, when medical clearance was confirmed, and their presence cheered their teammates as much as the crowd.

"When we saw they were playing, everybody was pumped up and ready to go," Duchesne said. "Maybe they're not 100 percent, but they're good players for us and we need them. They were there tonight and they did their job."

Duchesne did his and more, not only shackling Bossy but producing the first goal of the game.

Bob Gould lifted the puck from New York's Ken Morrow at the Islanders' blueline and Dave Christian picked it up and fed Duchesne in the slot. He beat Hrudey on the glove side at 10:12 of the first period.

"It was a nice way to start, but my linemates did all the work," Duchesne said. "Bobby Gould stole the puck and Davy Christian got both defensemen to go to him and then put it on my stick."

Clark Gillies tied it before the first period ended, taking Bob Bassen's pass in the left-wing circle and one-timing it past Peeters on the short side for his 47th playoff goal.

A lot of folks in New York have been downgrading Peeters because he was relatively ineffective against the Islanders in playoff series with Philadelphia and Boston. After that goal, one almost could hear the whispers, but Peeters certainly silenced his critics the rest of the night.

Carpenter's game-winner came midway through the second period. Hrudey blocked a shot by Scott Stevens and was crushed under the weight of Gartner and the Islanders' Paul Boutilier, who shoved Gartner into him. Carpenter took the rebound in the slot and flipped a backhander just inside the right post.

Hrudey complained bitterly to referee Ron Hoggarth. A few minutes later, Hrudey was dumped again, this time when Randy Boyd threw Duchesne on top of him. A second tirade at Hoggarth earned Hrudey a two-minute penalty.

"I thought Gartner had tackled me, then I saw one of the replays and talked to some of our guys and it may have been one of our guys pushed him into me," Hrudey said. "But I think interference is interference and you have to quit sitting on the goalie's head."

The Capitals appeared to score again early in the third period, when Stevens beat Hrudey from the left point during a Washington power play. Before the puck entered the net, however, Hoggarth had whistled a halt and assessed high-sticking penalties to Boyd and Greg Adams.

If that provided a momentary setback for the fans, they quickly found reason to yell louder, as TelScreen displayed the Rangers' 6-2 lead in Philadelphia. The roar was such that players of both teams and even the officials looked up in bewilderment.

The coup de grace took six more minutes. Jorgen Pettersson took a deflected puck in the slot and put a backhander between Hrudey's legs. The puck struck the far post and was fumbled by New York's Denis Potvin, who was then embarrassed when Christian banged the puck out of his skates and into the vacated net.

It made for joyful stuff for the fans, who had booed Potvin every time he touched the puck, in remembrance of the trip 12 days ago that resulted in a broken leg for Washington's Bengt Gustafsson.

The Capitals let down a bit thereafter, but Peeters was sensational and Washington was off in front. The fact that the Capitals lost the last two series against New York after winning the opener mattered little to a team that has had enough of history lessons.