Midway through the opening period Monday night, there was intrigue over which would melt first: the Rangers, the Rangers' ice or the Rangers' fans.

The Capitals were doing severe damage to all three.

Potholes along the boards interrupted the action during parts of the first two periods; holes in the Rangers' defense allowed the Capitals to bury one opponent -- the crowd -- before gliding by the other, 6-3.

The collection of customers that oozes in 40-some times a season makes Madison Square Garden the cesspool of the National Hockey League. Rangers fans lead the league in vile abuse, according to some of the people who see all the league has to offer. Some insist they're also the second-, third- and fourth-worst crowds.

"I got hit in the [left] eye with a quarter in the third period " Washington goalie Pete Peeters said. "They were coming on a three-on-two break and the quarter hits me.

"I went down. Had my gloves off and everything. It's only a few fans that spoil things, but they can be bad.

"I can't understand why so many people want to vent their frustration on sports. We're entertainers. Same as the circus. But nobody throws a shoe at the guy as he's swinging on the trapeze. Tonight with the quarter wasn't the worst for me here, though. When I was with the Flyers, somebody threw a ball bearing on the ice."

By the end of the second period, the venom was pretty well sucked out of the Garden. Bridge tournaments cause more emotion than the gang of 17,371 was showing. Washington Coach Bryan Murray had hoped to turn Rangers fans against their team, but what happened was just as good:


In the fourth minute of play, Bob Carpenter had managed the difficult feat of slamming the puck into the Rangers net and symbolically into the throat of the Rangers crowd.

Just to make sure the nasties would remain tame, the Capitals flicked three more shots past the former Mr. V, Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, in the first 36 minutes.

What anger the crowd showed much of the time was directed toward referee Kerry Fraser for failing to catch Capitals at what the crowd considered some fairly obvious holding.

The other reaction was frustration at the Rangers' inaccuracy. New York had four more shots on goal than the Capitals after two periods and several more chances that failed to come close to the net.

Shooting is not what the Rangers do best, but some of the efforts that went wide or high were a bit like a highly paid government secretary overshooting the "out" basket.

A sequence early in the second period illustrated the game: the Rangers spent most of the first few minutes peppering Peeters. The puck flew toward him and across his line of vision, but never past him.

When the puck got to the other end of the ice, it took Carpenter just a few seconds to flip it into the net for a 3-0 Washington advantage.

Later, Alan Haworth tried to increase a 4-0 lead. From about 10 yards, he wound up and gave the puck a mighty whack. No sooner had it left Haworth's stick than it found an unintended target:

Larry Melnyk's face.

Football players have stuck their noses in front of punters' feet to save games; batters have poked their arms to deflect baseballs humming at 90-plus mph.

Melnyk allowing his face to be used for target practice is carrying sacrifice beyond reason. Still, these are the playoffs. Time to donate bones and blood for a hunk of hardware.

"The key for us, for any team," Peeters explained, "is to dump the puck in and take the body. You don't see it that much in the regular season, because it's so long."

Even with the quarter smacking him in the eye, Peeters was wonderful until the Capitals got a lead that was almost impossible to botch.

Peeters lost his chance to record his third playoff shutout with his third team when Pierre Larouche bumped the puck past him 128 seconds into the third period.

You would have thought Mayor Koch had canceled taxes. Yellow streamers fluttered onto the ice; somebody threw a rolled-up cup close to Peeters and soon was escorted out of the arena.

Such celebration.

Rangermania at ear-aching pitch.

All the guys in white trailed by was three goals.

If the fans remembered that Rangers comeback in Game 1, so did the Capitals. Very quickly, they turned what seemed a neat piece of mugging into a 5-1 lead.

Two Rangers slammed Yvon Corriveau against the boards, but it was a split second after he had slipped the puck ahead to John Barrett.

All of a sudden, it was the Capitals with the extra-man advantage. Barrett whistled the puck across ice to Mike Gartner, who appreciated the gesture so much he returned it.

Barrett then hit an open net caused by Vanbiesbrouck still paying attention to Gartner.

By the time Larouche punched in the Rangers' third goal, the arena was three-quarters empty. About the same number of people stayed the final 10 minutes as hang around the Garden for the pole vault during a big indoor track meet.

Anyway, somebody lobbed a cup full of beer at Peeters. A wad of paper landed at his skates and Peeters slowly and carefully poked it behind him into the net.

Nothing else was going to get through.