The New York Rangers embraced the law of averages last night and came away with both an emotional victory over the Washington Capitals and the home-ice advantage in the Patrick Division final series.

Brian MacLellan blocked a shot by Greg Smith and wound up putting the puck between goaltender Pete Peeters' legs after 1 minute 16 seconds of sudden-death overtime to lift the Rangers to a 4-3 victory in Game 1 at Capital Centre.

MacLellan, who had scored New York's first goal, broke for the net after deflecting the shot with his stick, and Tomas Sandstrom was able to pick up the puck and feed him for the breakaway score.

It completed a remarkable comeback by the Rangers, who trailed, 3-1, in the second period, cut the gap on a shorthanded goal by Mark Osborne and pulled even on Mike Ridley's goal midway through the third period.

The Rangers had gone 21 games without an overtime victory since their last success on Jan. 6, 1985. The Capitals, on the other hand, had been unbeaten in 25 overtime games since losing to the New York Islanders in the second game of the Patrick Division final in 1984.

Before last night's foldup, the Capitals had posted a 41-2-4 record this season in games that they led after the second period. One of the ties came at Capital Centre 12 days ago, when the Rangers scored twice in the last two minutes to pull out a 4-4 deadlock and clinch a playoff berth.

The Rangers also rallied in the third period to defeat Philadelphia in Game 3 of their semifinal series, after going 2-28-2 during the regular season in games in which they trailed after 40 minutes.

Despite their recent history of overtime flops, the Rangers said they were upbeat as they sat in the dressing room before the start of sudden death.

"We were in a confident mood," MacLellan said. "We weren't going to lay back. We wanted to take it to them. We seemed a little tired early in the game, maybe because of our emotional win over the Flyers. But we started to get going as the game went on and we felt we could get them in the overtime."

The decisive play evolved after Scott Stevens' shot from the left point came around the boards to Smith at the right point. Smith shot and MacLellan reached out with his stick to knock it away.

"I don't think he was that close to me," Smith said. "He just gave it this [a reaching motion]. It didn't come out, it went deeper in the slot, but Sandstrom made a good play to get the puck to him [MacLellan]."

"Their defense was spread out, and when Tomas hit me, the middle was open and I went right in," MacLellan said. "You don't have time to think in that situation. It was a quick-decision play. I was going between his legs as soon as I got the puck.

"Wilf Paiement said when he was with Quebec they played against Peeters a lot and Michel Goulet told him to fake Peeters wide and go between his legs. I had that in mind."

Goals by Dave Christian, Bob Gould and Alan Haworth had given Washington a 3-1 advantage, and when Sandstrom was penalized for hooking with 2:37 left in the second period, the Capitals seemed in command.

The power play was feeble all night, but this time it was a disaster. Kelly Miller and Mark Osborne broke in on a shorthanded two-on-one against Larry Murphy, and when Peeters moved out, Osborne was able to take Miller's pass and tap the puck into the empty net.

"That second goal of ours turned the game around," MacLellan said. "It was 3-1 and it could have gone the other way."

"I think that was critical," Washington's Craig Laughlin agreed. "We were on the power play and could have put the game out of reach. Instead, they got a shorthanded goal and they could have had another one. It looked like they had a power play out there."

It still could have gone Washington's way, because the Capitals had two excellent chances early in the third period. But goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, as usual, was equal to the task.

First, Greg Adams pounced on a deflected puck in the slot and launched a quick shot that Vanbiesbrouck kicked out.

Then Christian broke past rookie defenseman Kjell Samuelsson and went in on a breakaway, but Vanbiesbrouck sprawled to block the shot.

Peeters did not make the save on Ridley's shot that tied the score with 10:23 left in regulation time, but he had virtually no chance. Reijo Ruotsalainen fired the puck in from the left point, and it struck Pierre Larouche before skipping into a group of skates in the slot. Washington's Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher had a chance to clear it and Miller touched it as well before Ridley kicked it free and whipped a backhander past Peeters on the glove side.

Each team had a good scoring chance late in regulation. Peeters flung his glove up to deflect a drive by Sandstrom, then Vanbiesbrouck blocked a drive by Bob Carpenter after Sandstrom dribbled the puck onto Carpenter's stick in front of the New York net.

Early in the overtime, the Rangers had a chance when Miller was unable to handle Ridley's pass with the net wide open. The second time they cashed in.

Rangers Coach Ted Sator said he did not see the first overtime goal of his one-year tenure in New York because his eyes were shut.

"That was just one play of the game," said Smith, who had played superbly for the previous 61 minutes. "We can't let that get us down and disappointed."

Washington defenseman John Barrett and Rangers winger Don Maloney were ejected for a second-period fight, and since both left the players' benches to slug it out, they will receive automatic three-game suspensions at the start of next season.

The fight was precipitated by an incident in which Barrett checked Vanbiesbrouck when the goalie played the puck at his right, beyond the crease. Willie Huber then bumped Barrett and there was no further reprisal until play stopped because of a penalty to Stevens.

Barrett left the ice and was standing inside the bench area when Maloney came out and challenged him.

Referee Andy Van Hellemond said, "They were both off the ice and Stevens was getting a penalty. Had Barrett not come on, Maloney would have gotten a misconduct, because obviously he wasn't coming out for the faceoff."

"He [Barrett] went to the bench and I was yapping at him," Maloney said. "Johnny's a fine piece of china, and we have to protect him with our lives. We had to address the issue. If I hadn't gone after him, somebody else would have."

"I bumped the goalie behind the net, but not as hard as I could have," Barrett said. "I had no intention of hurting him. He was handling the puck quite a bit and I just wanted to bump him.

"He's a great goaltender and I had no thought of cheap-shotting him. But as I came to the bench, all the guys on their bench were yelling at me. He [Maloney] came on the ice and we had words. It was kind of an innocent play. The game misconducts surprised me."

Van Hellemond was given a rough time by the crowd of 18,130, which seemed to want a penalty against New York every time bodies touched. The Rangers gave him inadvertent trouble, too. In the first period, Larry Melnyk fired a puck into Van Hellemond's back. Then, late in regulation, James Patrick's stick came up and caught the referee near the right eye.