When goaltender Pat Riggin was forced to stay home with the flu, the Pittsburgh Penguins called on Gilles Meloche, at 37 the National Hockey League's oldest player, to guard the net last night at Capital Centre.

Meloche responded with an amazing 45-save performance that carried the Penguins past the Washington Capitals, 4-2, and into third place in the Patrick Division, one point ahead of Washington.

"With that, it's easy to keep your concentration," Meloche said, laughing. "I expected a tight-checking game, especially against them, but they were shooting from everywhere. I just had to make the first save, though. Our guys did a good job clearing the rebounds."

To make matters worse for the Capitals, center Bengt Gustafsson departed in the first period after he was caught under the right eye by Jim Johnson's stick. Gustafsson required numerous stitches to close a deep gash and is not expected to play tonight when the same teams meet in Pittsburgh.

The Capitals already were without defenseman Rod Langway, who was troubled by back spasms and also is doubtful for the rematch.

Washington rolled up a 47-23 edge on the shot clock, but gave up goals in every possible manner -- on the power play, at equal strength, shorthanded and into an empty net.

After Washington's Mike Ridley and Pittsburgh's Doug Bodger matched extra-man goals, Randy Cunneyworth netted a controversial goal with seven seconds left in the first period.

Dan Quinn whipped a backhander toward the net and the puck struck Cunneyworth, who was going hard down the slot. Although replays indicated Cunneyworth had punched it across with his glove, referee Bill McCreary allowed the goal, stating the puck had struck Cunneyworth's chest.

Asked where it hit him, Cunneyworth said, "In the chest" -- and smiled broadly. Then he added, "I was going to the post and the puck was coming right at me. Off me it went, somewhere. It happened just like that."

McCreary, who failed to see Johnson's stick strike Gustafsson in the first period and issued no penalty, made amends in the second. He called five minors against Pittsburgh, none against Washington. Two penalties overlapped, giving the Capitals a two-man advantage for 1 minute 43 seconds.

Despite all the extra-man chances and a 19-2 advantage in shots, the Capitals did not put the puck past Meloche.

"That second period was tough, but Gilly played great," said Paul Coffey, the newest Penguin. "If we get the strong goaltending like that, we'll be all right."

There was a turnabout in the third period that made the crowd of 17,109 about as angry as the no-call on Johnson. First, McCreary blew his whistle when Meloche covered the puck, before Kelly Miller jarred it loose and over the line, producing a red light and a lot of misguided celebration.

Twenty-eight seconds later, at the other end, Mario Lemieux backhanded the puck off Scott Stevens' skate into the crease behind goalie Clint Malarchuk, who tried to sit on it. Malarchuk appeared to have it covered, but it squirted loose and Dave Hunter knocked it across, to boost Pittsburgh's lead to 3-1. Stevens protested so strongly that he was dealt a 10-minute misconduct.

"Clint had it, but it popped loose," Hunter said. "It was right on the line when I hit it. I'd like to get 20 like that."

Mike Gartner picked off an off-target pass by Johnson 16 seconds later and recorded his 14th goal with a drive over Meloche's right shoulder.

Although 11 minutes remained, the Capitals were unable to score again. Meloche made a sensational glove save on Dave Christian's rebound of a Kevin Hatcher shot and Dan Quinn finally wrapped it up into an empty net with 47 seconds left.

"We had 47 shots and at least 15 were great shots," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "Meloche stopped redirected shots two or three times in the third period. Even with our lack of scoring, with any luck at all we should have had three or four, at least."

One Penguin was not celebrating afterward. That was Johnson, who repeatedly sought information about Gustafsson's condition and was delighted to learn the injury was not considered serious.

"It relieves me a ton that he'll be all right," Johnson said. "It was on my mind all night. I couldn't play my game. I really feel bad for Bengt. I'm not that type of player.

"I picked my stick up to go with a guy in the corner and he {Gustafsson} picked me. My stick got caught in his sweater and I don't know how it happened, whether he was trying to get it out or I was pivoting, but it got up under his visor and it didn't come out. I was afraid to pull it, for fear of hurting him worse."

Pittsburgh 2 0 2 4 Washington 1 0 1 2

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Washington, Ridley 9 (Da.Hunter, Hatcher), 1:38 (pp). 2, Pittsburgh, Bodger 4 (Callender, Coffey), 6:20 (pp). 3, Pittsburgh, Cunneyworth 10 (Quinn, Lemieux), 19:53. PENALTIES -- Frawley, Pit (boarding), :24; Galley, Was (slashing), 5:13; Gartner, Was (hooking), 9:22; Callender, Pit (holding), 14:01; Loney, Pit, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 16:45; Cavallini, Was, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 16:45.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- None. PENALTIES -- Quinn, Pit (holding), :57; Dv.Hunter, Pit (high-sticking), 1:14; Coffey, Pit (holding), 5:24; Van Dorp, Pit, double minor (high-sticking), 9:40.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 4, Pittsburgh, Dv.Hunter 4 (Lemieux), 8:46 (sh). 5, Washington, Gartner 14, 9:02 (pp). 6, Pittsburgh, Quinn 7 (en), 19:13. PENALTIES -- Pivonka, Was (holding), 1:25; Kastelic, Was, double minor (high-sticking, roughing), 7:34; Frawley, Pit, double minor (roughing), 7:34; Siren, Pit (holding), 8:18; Stevens, Was, misconduct, 8:46; Cunneyworth, Pit (holding), 12:29.

Shots on goal:

Pittsburgh 10 2 11 23 Washington 9 19 19 47

Power-play Opportunities -- Pittsburgh 1 of 3; Washington 2 of 9.

Goalies -- Pittsburgh, Meloche (47 shots-45 saves). Washington, Malarchuk (22-19).

A -- 17,109.

Referee -- Bill McCreary. Linesmen -- Kevin Collins, Gord Broseker.

In other games last night, Wayne Gretzky scored a short-handed goal for the game-winner in the Edmonton Oilers' 4-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks; Hartford beat Buffalo, 4-2; Detroit defeated St. Louis, 6-0; Minnesota stopped Montreal, 4-2, and Edmonton beat Chicago, 4-3.