It is time to treat the New York Rangers with respect. The scorned fourth-place Patrick Division finishers moved within one game of another amazing upset last night when they came from two goals down to beat the Washington Capitals, 4-2, at Capital Centre.

It was the fourth time in this divisional final series that Washington had a two-goal lead disappear, and the result left the Capitals reeling, three games to two.

If they thus far have failed to profit from the earlier flop of the first-place Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals at least have a chance to climb out of the soup. The Flyers lost the decisive fifth game to the Rangers at home; this is a seven-game series and Washington still is alive, needing victories Sunday in New York and here on Tuesday to advance to the Prince of Wales Conference final.

For the Rangers, this was a momentous event in another respect. The victory lifted them to .500 for the entire season; they were 36-38-6 during the regular schedule, when they finished 32 points behind the Flyers and 29 in arrears of the Capitals.

Tomas Sandstrom produced the winning goal in the second period and Don Maloney got the clincher early in the third. But the big goal for the visitors, everyone agreed, was the one by Pierre Larouche that reduced the Capitals' lead to 2-1.

Overlapping penalties to James Patrick and Larry Melnyk gave Washington a two-man advantage and before both players were back on the ice, goals by Dave Christian and Scott Stevens had produced a 2-0 margin 3:34 into the first period.

"When we were down two men and they scored, we had to make sure that, if we bent, we didn't break," said New York Coach Ted Sator. "The guys kept their composure in a tough situation. Down, 2-0, to the Washington Capitals isn't a pleasing start."

Just 31 seconds after Stevens' goal, Larouche halved the deficit. Peeters fumbled a shot by Kjell Samuelsson and, as he tried to control the puck, Washington's Bob Gould tackled Wilf Paiement and both crashed into the goalie. That left the puck loose and Larouche tapped it into the net.

"I thought we were in trouble again and it would be another of those games," said the Rangers' Brian MacLellan. "The big one was the first goal. We were back in it right away and it turned things around for us."

"We were up two goals and they came back," Christian said. "The guys maybe said, 'Here we go again.' There seemed to be a bit of a letdown after that goal.

"When we were up two goals, there was no problem before. Now we almost go into a shell, like we're afraid to make a mistake, instead of following our normal forechecking."

Before the first period ended, Washington captain Rod Langway landed a left jab on Sandstrom's mouth during a scuffle along the boards. Langway said he was trying to pull Sandstrom down. Sandstrom said, "He punched me in the face, but I didn't want to punch him. He got the penalty."

On the power play that followed, a shot by Reijo Ruotsalainen was deflected off the crossbar. Then Larouche's centering pass caromed off Peeters and Paiement was able to reach far out and steer the rebound back into the net.

"After we got the second one to tie it up, the momentum went to our side and we played very well," Maloney said. "That was definitely our strongest effort so far."

Vanbiesbrouck made some good stops in the second period before Sandstrom broke the tie. MacLellan, who knocked Kevin Hatcher off the puck to set up Bob Brooke's tying goal in Game 4, repeated that maneuver along the left wing boards and spun to feed Sandstrom in the left wing circle. Sandstrom put the puck behind Peeters and the Rangers, who had led for only 28 seconds during the previous four games, were able to add 26 minutes 11 seconds to that figure.

"All I did was look for an open guy and Tomas was coming in, so I fed it to him," MacLellan said.

The rest of the way, Vanbiesbrouck was exceptional. He made big saves on Craig Laughlin, Christian and Jorgen Pettersson before the second period ended and he blocked all 10 Washington shots in the third period.

Four of the third-period saves came against Mike Gartner, who had eight shots on goal during the game without result.

"I was getting it there, but he was tough tonight," Gartner said. "This is the first game he really played well. I think he played his best in the third period and by then we were playing a little frustrated."

The frustration increased immeasurably when Maloney slipped down the left wing, took a rinkwide pass from Mark Osborne and skated in front, to slip a backhander between Peeters and the post at the goalie's right. Hatcher was beaten on that one, too.

"We had the same thing twice in the first period, but the man was on me," Maloney said. "This time, he was looking, but I got away. Mark made a great pass and I was glad to be able to help."

The goal was Maloney's 20th in Stanley Cup play, but only the second this year.

The worst part of the last 17 minutes was the uncertainty of waiting for Gartner and Langway to pick themselves up after incidents that could have produced serious injury, but didn't.

Gartner was speared along the boards by Bob Brooke and lay on the ice a bit before skating off.

"The puck was coming around the boards and I tried to bat it down," Gartner said. "He speared me and knocked the wind out of me, but I was okay pretty quick."

Langway collided with the Rangers' Kelly Miller and was knocked into Peeters. Both lay sprawled in the goal mouth before Langway managed to untangle himself. He twisted his knee slightly.

The Capitals removed Peeters for a sixth skater with 1:56 remaining, but they did not put much pressure on Vanbiesbrouck. Meanwhile, the Rangers were content to clear the puck, although a couple of shots down the ice came within a foot of an empty-net goal.

The Capitals' power play, officially two for six, went from good to bad to mediocre.

Although they had succeeded only twice in 23 two-man advantages before last night, they needed only 14 seconds of that situation to move in front. Then before Melnyk left the penalty box, Stevens took a pass from Christian and after an initial fumble, lifted it into the net.

Few would have thought Washington would go 56 1/2 minutes without scoring again. On one of the power plays that followed, the Capitals were unable to cross the red line for 33 seconds before a foul by Larry Murphy evened the sides. After another powerless effort later, they did test Vanbiesbrouck several times late in the second period with Mike Allison off for high sticking.

After the game, the Capitals put tickets on sale for a possible seventh game here on Tuesday. There were few takers, but the players insisted that they would be back.

"We're confident that we can win in New York," Gould said. "If we go up there thinking we can't win, then there's no sense even showing up."

"The best team in the end will always come out on top, and the Washington Capitals right now are a better team than they are," Laughlin said. "We're going to go out there and beat them Sunday. That's all there is to it."