For 57 minutes last night, the Washington Capitals kept coming close to the net without much result. Then, as a one-goal defeat was looming uncomfortably close, Rod Langway and Dale Hunter scored 48 seconds apart at Capital Centre to give the Capitals a 4-3 victory over the New York Rangers.

Langway picked off a clearing pass by David Shaw and threaded it through a maze of players to tie the score with 2:42 left in regulation. Then, before thoughts of overtime could enter anyone's mind, Hunter took a shot from an acute angle in the left-wing circle that caromed into the net off goalie Bob Froese's pad with 1:54 remaining.

The Rangers lifted Froese for a sixth skater and came close to a tie, but Washington goalie Clint Malarchuk made two superb saves and benefited from a quick whistle when the puck slipped from underneath him with 15 seconds left. Although Tomas Sandstrom grabbed it with the net open, referee Mike Noeth already was whistling to stop play.

Hunter, who scored his first two goals as a Capital, lost the ensuing faceoff, but blocked a drive by Shaw and the puck rolled down the ice as most of the 14,767 fans celebrated.

They had much to be excited about. This was Washington's third straight success at home, it marked the first time the team ever had been above .500 after five games and the Capitals joined three other clubs -- the Rangers, Islanders and New Jersey -- in a mob scene atop the Patrick Division.

The Capitals and Rangers clash again Monday in Madison Square Garden and Hunter said, "Any time you can come back in the third period to win it gives you a boost, especially going right back into their building."

Malarchuk and Hunter, the two keys to the victory, had played for Michel Bergeron, the Rangers' new coach, in Quebec. There still is a lot of respect in both directions and Hunter said, "I hope Michel does well, but not against us."

For his part, Bergeron was more interested in chastising his players for not covering the point on Langway's shot than for steering any praise in Hunter's direction.

"Langway's goal was the turning point," Bergeron said. "We missed the point and you can't give a free shot to the point man with three minutes to go. Langway will score maybe four or five goals this year and that was a big one tonight. Even a minor leaguer has a chance to score on a free shot from the point."

Langway said, "Peter {Sundstrom} took a great shot and it went off a skate. Shaw made a good play along the glass, but it came to me. It was rolling a bit and I tried to get it low. I saw the bodies in front and I hoped it would get by. If it hits somebody, it's a three- or four-to-one against me."

Shaw said, "I saw {Lucien} Deblois and I tried to give it to him, but I hit it too hard."

The score was only 3-3, but Hunter had a feeling that the Capitals were headed for a victory.

"When Rod scored, that changed the whole game," Hunter said. "They'd been dumping the puck in and getting on our defensemen. That goal gave us the light."

Hunter was skating into the left-wing circle as he took a pass from Larry Murphy. He was deep in the circle, nearing the goal line, when he shot the puck.

"Their defenseman went to the net and he and {Greg} Adams got tied up there," Hunter said. "Addie kind of nudged Froese and he was pretty far out. I think the puck just tipped Froese's pad as it went by him."

Adams said, "I was just going to the net with the defenseman on me and Froese came out, following the angle. Hunts flicked the puck from a semi-impossible angle and it got in there."

Both Froese and Bergeron wanted Adams penalized for interference, but Noeth, after whistling 14 minors in the first 43 minutes, did not motion toward the penalty box thereafter.

Bergeron said, "They call everything for two periods and then they call nothing. It's the same story. Adams has Froese on the winning goal, but they won't call it."

Sundstrom, a former Ranger, opened the scoring on what was essentially a shorthanded goal, since it came exactly two minutes after Mike Gartner went off for hooking.

Gartner, held without a goal for the first time this season, was back in the box when Marcel Dionne tied it with his 698th career goal.

A power-play goal by Hunter sent Washington ahead, 2-1, but Kelly Kisio pulled the Rangers even in the last minute of the first period.

Shaw's first goal in 90 games, while Langway served a penalty at 1:33 of the second period, gave New York a 3-2 lead that held up for more than 35 minutes -- until suddenly Langway was a hero and Shaw a goat. N.Y. Rangers 2 1 0 3 Washington 2 0 2 4

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Washington, Sundstrom 2, 10:17. 2, New York, Dionne 5 (Poddubny, Sandstrom), 13:21 (pp). 3, Washington, Hunter 1 (Murphy), 16:51 (pp). 4, New York, Kisio 2 (Maloney, DeBlois), 19:09. PENALTIES -- Gartner, Was (hooking), 8:17; DeBlois, NY (holding), 10:54; Gartner, Was (hooking), 12:41; Dionne, NY (hooking), 15:53; Langway, Was (hooking), 19:57.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- 5, New York, Shaw 1 (Sandstrom, Poddubny), 1:33 (pp). PENALTIES -- Dionne, NY (interference), 5:17; Hunter, Was (high-sticking), 5:17; Sandstrom, NY (high-sticking), 5:17; Smith, Was (cross-checking), 8:06; Kisio, NY (cross-checking), 10:23; Galley, Was (holding), 12:14; Cavallini, Was (high-sticking), 14:00.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 6, Washington, Langway 1, 17:18. 7, Washington, Hunter 2 (Murphy, Stevens), 18:06. PENALTIES -- Duguay, NY (holding), 1:36; Stevens, Was (roughing), 2:56.

Shots on goal: N.Y. Rangers 8 12 9 29 Washington 11 5 15 31

Power-play opportunities -- N.Y. Rangers 2 of 7; Washington 1 of 5.

Goalies -- N.Y. Rangers, Froese (31 shots-27 saves). Washington, Malarchuk (29-26).

A -- 14,767.

Referee -- Mike Noeth. Linesmen -- John D'Amico, Dan McCourt.