Center Dale Hunter was such a key part of the Quebec Nordiques that when he was dealt to Washington in June, the Quebec media was convinced that Hunter was damaged goods.

At the time, Quebec General Manager Maurice Filion said, "We're thinking of the future. I have to admit that Dale's injury played a big role in our decision. I know very well that I'll be criticized in Quebec, but time will be the judge."

One training camp and five regular season games might be ruled insufficient evidence. Then again, that might be enough to prove Filion and the media wrong, because Hunter certainly has been the same net jammer, pinpoint passer and general pest here that he was in Quebec.

Saturday night Hunter showed his old coach, Michel Bergeron, that he had lost none of his verve as he led the Capitals to a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Bergeron's New York Rangers at Capital Centre. Hunter and the Capitals will try to repeat that performance tonight when the teams meet again at Madison Square Garden.

Early in Saturday's game, Hunter scored a power-play goal, was robbed of a second score by goalie Bob Froese's superb kick save and engaged in a stick-swinging duel with Tomas Sandstrom.

Less than three minutes remained when Rod Langway, another nonstop worker who has fooled critics who say he's headed downhill, threaded the tying goal through a pack of bodies in front of the net.

Hunter then provided the game winner with 1:54 left, beating Froese from what winger Greg Adams called "a semi-impossible angle" at the goalie's right. Hunter was not through, however.

With 15 seconds on the clock and Froese off for a sixth skater, Hunter lost a faceoff in the Washington end. The puck came back to the Rangers' David Shaw at the right point and anxious Washington fans could envision a copy of Langway's tying score.

It never happened, because Hunter dove in front of Shaw and blocked the shot, the puck rolling down the ice while the crowd of 14,767 celebrated victory.

"You've got to sacrifice the body when you make a mistake," Hunter said.

Coach Bryan Murray said: "Dale is so valuable to this team. You saw the last play of the game. He lost the faceoff and in a one-goal hockey game, they have a free shot almost. But Dale goes sliding up and makes the block.

"Dale isn't a noisy guy, but his play -- you have to follow his lead. He takes the body, he goes to the net consistently, he ties up guys and he puts the stick on them in the corners."

Defenseman Scott Stevens, a tough guy not easily impressed, said: "Dale is a great player. He's a quiet guy in the room, but he's a leader on the ice. He talks a lot out there. He's great defensively and he helps us a lot, winning draws and blocking shots."

Hunter's seven seasons in Quebec coincided with those of Bergeron, who once called Hunter "the heart" of the Nordiques. So their first meeting as rivals was somewhat unusual for both.

"I hope Michel does well, but not against us," Hunter said. "It was a little strange, hearing him yell at his guys after yelling at me all those years."

Asked about suffering his first Rangers defeat at the hands of Hunter, Bergeron said, "Dale Hunter played seven years with me and he's a fine player." Then he returned to a previous topic, the Rangers' failure to pick up Langway at the point.

Certainly, Hunter's willingness to mix it up in the corners and in front of the net has ended any speculation about his physical condition. He thinks Filion and friends were misled last spring, when he returned prematurely from a broken ankle and played at considerably less than 100 percent.

"When I came back, the pins were still in and it was taped up," Hunter said. "I couldn't turn one way, but I came back anyway because we were in a bad streak and I wanted to do what I could. The pins were removed in May and it's like new now."

Bergeron ran afoul of another of his old Nordiques, goaltender Clint Malarchuk, who blocked 26 shots and made two big stops in the closing minute. Malarchuk also benefited from a big break just before that last faceoff, the puck slipping from underneath him to Sandstrom for an open-net shot just as referee Mike Noeth blew the whistle to stop play.

"I thought it was under me, but I didn't have full sight of it," Malarchuk said. "When a lot of guys are poking at you, you just hope it's under there."

Capitals Notes:

At 3-2, the Capitals are above .500 after five games for the first time in their 14-year history. "Let's see if we can go 4-2," Langway said . . . The Capitals have won their first three home games, another franchise first. "It's nice that we're winning at home," Malarchuk said. "That's one of our goals, to be tough in our own barn." . . . Marcel Dionne's goal Saturday was his 698th in the NHL. Only Gordie Howe (801) and Rangers General Manager Phil Esposito (717) have more . . . There is no local radio-TV tonight, but many fans can pick up the game on WNBC-660 in New York.