Bengt Gustafsson had gone more than five weeks without a goal before a stick to the head sent him to the sidelines last week. That rap may have served as a wakeup call, because Gustafsson returned last night and scored twice in leading the Washington Capitals to a 4-2 victory over the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers.

Trailing, 1-0, after 20 minutes, the Capitals scored four times against Edmonton's Grant Fuhr during less than nine minutes of the second period. Two of the goals came on power plays, marking the sixth straight game Washington had scored twice with the extra man.

"From the results, that was very definitely our best period of the season," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "Fuhr made at least four unbelievable stops besides the goals. It could have been six or seven in that period."

Edmonton center Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's leading scorer, was limited to one shot and held without a point by the tenacious checking of Dale Hunter. Mark Messier, the Oilers' other super center, was forced to depart in the first period with a groin pull. Both had point streaks end, Gretzky's at 15 games and Messier's at 14.

"The Caps did a good job on me," Gretzky said. "The Hunter line {with Gustafsson shifted to the left side and Gartner on the right} played a good game and they have some speed on that line. Some teams are easy to beat and some are tough. The Capitals {who defeated the Oilers for the sixth time in seven meetings} are tough for whatever reason."

The Capitals, who leapfrogged Pittsburgh into third place in the Patrick Division, prevailed in spite of adversity, losing defenseman Greg Smith with a bruised larynx in the first minute. It was the third time in four games that Washington had a defenseman depart for good early in the first period.

Larry Murphy was struck in the face by a puck late in the second period, but he was back for the third after taking stitches on the upper lip and above the right eye. Then Hunter was nailed above the right eye by a deflected puck in the third period, missing less than six minutes while repairs were made.

"The doctors are getting work for their money," Gustafsson said, managing a laugh despite the redness that still surrounded his right eye. Of his scoring drought, he said, "As long as you know you're doing something right, that's all that matters. People have told me for seven years now that I pass too much; it's nothing new. But once in a while, I get some good shots off. Tonight was one of them."

Edmonton had a 1-0 lead and Fuhr had just foiled Gartner twice, on a breakaway and a tough shot from the slot. Then Murphy's pass got Gustafsson going on a two-on-one with Gartner against Steve Smith. In that situation, Gustafsson almost always makes a pass, but this time he fired the puck under Fuhr's glove and the score was tied.

"The defenseman played it pretty well and Mike was covered all the way," Gustafsson said. "So I shot it, instead, and it worked."

Washington went ahead to stay during a penalty to Kelly Buchberger. Charlie Huddy stubbed an attempted clear along the rear boards and Michal Pivonka picked it off, then fed Mike Ridley for a scoring shot from the right-wing circle.

Gartner broke in from the right-wing boards and fired a shot just under the crossbar for his 16th goal and a 3-1 lead. Gustafsson and Stevens assisted. It was Stevens' 200th assist.

"Grant Fuhr is a quality goaltender and he made some pretty good moves to stop me earlier," Gartner said. "But I hoped I'd get a few more chances and fortunately I sneaked one by him. It feels good to create more offensive opportunities and put the puck in the net a little more often."

With Huddy off for hooking, Gartner deflected Stevens' shot from the point and the puck went to Gustafsson at the right post. He slid it under Fuhr and it was 4-1.

Washington goalie Clint Malarchuk made some excellent stops the rest of the way, although Craig Simpson beat him from point-blank range early in the third period.

Craig MacTavish hit two posts in less than 20 seconds and Moe Mantha, Steve Smith and Jari Kurri all fired inches wide down the stretch. When Malarchuk foiled Gretzky after No. 99 split Washington's defense, it was apparent the 17,342 fans would be celebrating a victory.

"I missed the shot on the first when I had him beat and it was just off enough to hit the post," MacTavish said. "Then I came back and hit the outside of the post. That's the way things go."

With Rod Langway out, Smith's loss at the 42-second mark, when Norm Lacombe's stick inadvertently whacked his throat, put Washington in deep trouble. Smith was sent to Georgetown University Hospital for nightlong observation and rookie Bill Houlder suddenly found himself facing Gretzky on his first NHL shift.

"It was different, seeing Gretzky come down on me. I wondered whether I should ask him for his autograph," said Houlder, recalled from Fort Wayne on Sunday. "When I watched the warmup and saw those guys, I wondered, 'Am I supposed to be here?'

"But that's the way I'd want to do it. If you get thrown in quick against the best, you can't help but improve."