EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., NOV. 7 -- The New Jersey Devils are doing a lot of things right these days. The Washington Capitals, on the other hand, are having a devil of a time scoring goals. So perhaps it should have come as no surprise when New Jersey handled the Capitals rather easily tonight, 4-1.

It was shocking, though, if for no other reason than the way Washington has feasted on the Devils since they came here from Colorado in 1982. Tonight's triumph was only the fifth for New Jersey in 36 meetings over that stretch, with four tied.

These Devils are on an unprecedented high, moving five games over .500 for the first time in the 14-year history of the franchise. If that seems far-fetched, it must be recalled that last season's 64-point production was another peak.

A surprisingly large crowd of 16,347 turned up and had a lot to cheer about, as the Devils outhustled the visitors except for stretches early in the first and second periods.

It was the eighth straight Meadowlands success for New Jersey, the only NHL team with a perfect record at home.

Goaltender Bob Sauve, who learned to beat Washington as a Buffalo Sabre, stopped 23 shots and boosted his career record against the Capitals to 12-3-4. Patrik Sundstrom, Pat Verbeek, Doug Brown and Mark Johnson scored the Devils' goals.

"This was a big test for us," said New Jersey Coach Doug Carpenter. "I think Washington is a very good hockey team, maybe the best in the division right now.

"But they had only six or seven scoring chances and I thought we did a good job of shutting down a good hockey team."

The Capitals might be a good team in a lot of areas, but scoring is not one of them. They have only 15 goals in the last seven games and their only victories in that stretch have been a pair of one-goal decisions over Vancouver.

This was Washington's second 4-1 defeat in 27 hours, although Coach Brian Murray restored his old line combinations after making radical changes Friday against Quebec.

Tonight the Capitals once again were flubbing the big chances, from Mike Gartner's open-net shot over the crossbar in the second minute to Bengt Gustafsson's open-net shot that hooked off to the right with four minutes left.

"We're fighting to score and when we get a chance, we're a little tentative," said Murray. "We miss the net in close and our shots from the point are blocked outside."

Still, Murray gave full credit to the Devils, who seemed confidently in control after Verbeek's 12th goal sent them ahead to stay with 32 seconds left in the second period.

"They held us up and restrained us," Murray said.

"They took our forechecking out of the game. And they turned it around so fast that we were outmanned in most situations. When they got ahead, they were playing with real authority."

Neither team scored for 33 minutes and Carpenter said, "It almost appeared that the team that scored first would win, that the momentum would swing their way."

Washington's Dale Hunter was in the box for charging when Sundstrom, twin brother of Washington's Peter Sundstrom, opened the scoring on a rebound of a shot by Johnson.

Kevin Hatcher got that back on a Washington power play with Jim Korn off for interference.

Hatcher batted down an attempted clear by Bruce Driver at the left point, moved in and beat Sauve with a blast on the short side.

The Devils went ahead to stay when Washington goalie Pete Peeters, battling for a rebound on hands and knees, saw Ken Daneyko control the puck and steer it to Verbeek for an open netter.

Although the Devils put only four shots on goal in the third period, they scored twice while limiting the Capitals to five shots.

Peeters was on the ice again when Doug Brown hustled in to net a loose puck that resulted from Peeters' save on Gord Mark. Then Johnson, who returned tonight after an 11-game absence with a strained left knee, put a 50-footer past Peeters with Paul Cavallini in the box for slashing.

That was the second power-play goal of the game for the Devils and it was the 18th yielded by Washington, which has averted an opposition extra-man score only once in 14 games.

Kirk Muller, the Devils' captain, has endured Capitals indignities for the last three seasons and he said, "They're a great hockey team and we haven't been successful against them at all. But we've increased the caliber of our players and it's nice to play a team like Washington, knowing we have more confidence than in the past.

"We wanted to keep things going tonight, everybody recognized this was a big game and even the fans responded. The fans have gone through some tough years, too, and speaking for the players, it's nice to see a crowd like that." Washington 0 1 0 1 New Jersey 0 2 2 4

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- None. PENALTIES -- Hunter, Was (roughing), 6:26; Wolanin, NJ (boarding), 18:50.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- 1, New Jersey, Pa.Sundstrom 5 (Johnson, Kurvers), 13:25. 2, Washington, Hatcher 1, 18:56 (pp). 3, New Jersey, Verbeek 12 (Daneyko, Muller), 19:28. PENALTIES -- Hunter, Was (charging), 11:57; Pe.Sundstrom, Was (interference), 13:34; Korn, NJ (interference), 17:22.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 4, New Jersey, Brown 3 (Loiselle, Mark), 1:57. 5, New Jersey, Johnson 1 (Muller, Verbeek), 4:50 (pp). PENALTIES -- Cavallini, Was (slashing), 4:31; Smith, Was (interference), 8:18; Kurvers, NJ (high-sticking), 14:56.

Shots on goal: Washington 8 10 5 23 New Jersey 8 10 4 22

Power-play Opportunities -- Washington 1 of 3; New Jersey 2 of 5.

Goalies -- Washington, Peeters (22 shots-18 saves). New Jersey, Sauve (23-22).

A -- 16,347.

Referee -- Don Koharski. Linesmen -- Pat Dapuzzo, Dan McCourt.