The Washington Capitals fought back last night. Dealing the New York Rangers a physical pounding from the first minute, the Capitals kept the scoreboard busy, too, and evened the Patrick Division final series with an 8-1 victory at Capital Centre.

Lou Franceschetti and John Barrett stirred things up in the contact department, and Alan Haworth and Gaetan Duchesne provided most of the offense as Washington jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period and atoned for its overtime loss in the opener of the best-of-seven series.

Haworth scored two goals and set up three others to set a club playoff record with five points. Duchesne also scored twice as the Capitals sent tough little goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to an early shower with the biggest offensive splurge in their four-year playoff history.

Game 3 of the series will be played Monday at Madison Square Garden, and the humiliated Rangers tried to find consolation in the fact that they were leaving here with the home-ice advantage.

"Any time you lose 8-1 it's a humbling experience," the Rangers' Mark Osborne said. "It's embarrassing. But 8-1 or 2-1, it's only one loss. You have to look at the bright side -- we got the split and now we have the home-ice advantage."

Washington Coach Bryan Murray had berated his team for its feeble hitting in Game 1. So when Dwight Schofield and Yvon Corriveau appeared in the lineup last night, it was readily apparent that the game plan was to pound the Rangers physically.

The pounding started before Schofield or Corriveau stepped on the ice, and afterward Murray revealed that Schofield had been a last-minute addition because Steve Leach was debilitated by flu.

On the second shift of the game, Franceschetti flattened Jim Wiemer and Barrett leveled Tomas Sandstrom. It set the pattern for what was to follow, with only a brief respite in the second period.

"I think our checking was the key," Barrett said. "In the first game, we took the body in the first period, then backed off and let them pick up some steam. They're a good hockey team, and you can't let them get going. It's a matter of finishing our checks, not playing dirty but jumping in at the right time."

Franceschetti, who seemed to be involved with New York players all night, was letting out some tension built up by the continuing wait for his wife Diane to deliver their overdue baby.

"I let the team down the first game because my mind was on other things, but tonight I took my mind completely off my problems," he said. "I wanted to pick the team up, and I think our good start helped to get everybody going. It seemed their defensemen were looking over their shoulders after that."

The Rangers, outshot by 16-4 in the first period, did not test Washington goalie Pete Peeters until almost nine minutes had elapsed. A half-minute later, Mike Gartner put the Capitals ahead to stay with a backhander between Vanbiesbrouck's legs after a give-and-go with Haworth that left defenseman Tom Laidlaw in no-man's land. Gartner, whose goal was his first of these playoffs, had missed the net earlier on a shorthanded break.

"It's good to win that convincingly, with everybody contributing," Gartner said.

Scott Stevens, whose perfect headman pass had sent Gartner in on the earlier unsuccessful effort, repeated the move with Craig Laughlin, who made the most of it. Laughlin deked Vanbiesbrouck, then shoved a backhander behind him on the stick side for a 2-0 lead.

An apparent goal by Dave Christian was disallowed by referee Denis Morel, who instead penalized Bob Carpenter for interference because Carpenter whacked Vanbiesbrouck with his stick as the puck was entering the net.

Not long after, Haworth missed the net on a breakaway after taking Rod Langway's feed. The Capitals' failure to take advantage of so many opportunities could have haunted them later.

But Haworth, like Gartner, made the most of a second chance. He cut off a New York clearing attempt and fired the puck between Vanbiesbrouck's pads from the right wing circle, 57 seconds before the end of the first period for a 3-0 lead.

Larry Melnyk trimmed the Rangers' deficit to 3-1 with a 40-foot shot over Peeters' left shoulder early in the second period. But the few New York fans in the sellout crowd of 18,130 had barely reacted before Duchesne restored the three-goal margin.

Vanbiesbrouck got his glove on a drive by Christian, and the puck popped high in the air. Duchesne skated into the crease and tried to deflect it in midair, as he had done against the Islanders. This time he missed, but the puck landed at his feet and he kicked it across.

"I tried to get it with my stick, but I missed it and it came down and hit my skate. I didn't kick it purposely. It just happened that way," he said.

Then Washington fans got their biggest scare of the night. Gartner raced in and shot the puck, then was sandwiched between Melnyk and Franceschetti. The whistle blew and Gartner lay on the ice for some time, then rose and skated off to loud applause.

"Melnyk's stick came up under my shield and the blade came out at the top, between the shield and my helmet," Gartner said. "I didn't want to skate around with a stick coming out of the top of my head, so I stayed there until they pried it out."

It was the last reason for any concern for the Capitals. Although penalties piled up on Washington late in the second period, the Rangers could not take advantage. Instead, Bob Gould put a perfect pass on Duchesne's stick for a shorthanded goal that ended any chance of a New York comeback.

Ted Sator, the Rangers' coach, accepted the inevitable and substituted Glen Hanlon for Vanbiesbrouck at the start of the third period. It was Hanlon's second playoff appearance, since he also relieved Vanbiesbrouck in the Rangers' 7-1 loss to Philadelphia last Sunday.

"It would have been a monumental task coming back from five goals, and there was no sense taking Johnny and running his tank dry," Sator said.

Haworth had the most fun in the third period, as he set up goals by Jorgen Pettersson and Greg Adams and added his second, shooting from his knees after taking Gartner's pass from behind the New York goal line.

The big night was most welcome to Haworth, who was shut out by the Islanders before he got a goal in Thursday's loss. Haworth entered the game with 18 points in 31 playoff games; he also had a history of bedeviling the Rangers, having led the Capitals against New York during the past season with 10 points.

"I have no idea why I do so well against them, but at least I've got one team like that," Haworth said.

Peeters made 19 saves on an easy night, and Murray conceded that he had sent up a smokescreen in suggesting that Al Jensen might start the game.

"I intended to use Pete Peeters, but I wanted them to spend at least five minutes thinking about Al Jensen," Murray said. "Sometimes I think we're too generous with the information we pass on to the other team."

If the Capitals displayed a weakness during the game, it was their failure to score on two occasions when they had two-man advantages. They were two for 20 in such situations during the season.