EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., DEC. 30 -- For the first time in 10 weeks, the Washington Capitals have beaten a Patrick Division opponent.

Kevin Hatcher's goal with 4:21 left in regulation lifted the Capitals to a 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils tonight, costing the home club a chance to take over the Patrick lead. Washington, meanwhile, closed to four points behind the leader.

"They're big wins any time you get them in your division," Hatcher said. "It's going to be a real race. Everybody will be there, even the Rangers, with all their scoring power."

Dale Hunter netted two power-play goals and Bengt Gustafsson added a shorthanded score and three assists for Washington, which took an early 2-0 advantage before the Devils rallied with three straight goals.

Hunter's second of the game tied it with 6:31 remaining in the second period and, the way the teams turned to cautious hockey, it appeared Washington was destined for its fourth tie in six games.

New Jersey defenseman Tom Kurvers fell pursuing a good scoring chance in the Washington end, however, and that triggered a three-on-one break for the Capitals, with Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson and Peter Sundstrom racing in against Bruce Driver. Although Sundstrom shot the puck into the fallen Driver in front of the net, Hatcher alertly trailed the play and lifted the winner over Driver and goalie Bob Sauve.

"I was the fourth guy leaving the zone and all I could see were three red shirts and one white shirt," Hatcher said. "I figured, 'They won't need me, they've already got a three-on-one.'

"But I kept floating down there and all I was thinking was that I'd be the first one to congratulate Peter. Then the puck came right out to me and I hit the empty net.

"I'm pleased to win a game, because things hadn't been going too good for me the last couple of weeks. Hopefully, this will change things around."

Hatcher's goal disappointed most of the 19,040 fans, who formed the third straight sellout here, a franchise record.

The Capitals limited New Jersey to 10 shots over the last two periods and enjoyed a 34-20 advantage for the night. It was Washington's first Patrick victory since it won in Philadelphia Oct. 22. In the interim, the Capitals had been winless in seven divisional games.

"We knew from the start it would be close," Hunter said. "On any given night, as they say. The team that gets hot at the right time can pull away with it."

The Capitals hold a 28-5-4 margin over the Devils and they started out as if this would be the walkover they used to enjoy in virtually every meeting with New Jersey. Hunter got his stick on a power-play drive by Larry Murphy to deflect it past Sauve, then Gustafsson stole the puck from Driver and skated in on a shorthanded two-on-one with Hunter to make it 2-0.

Jim Korn redirected a Kurvers drive from the point at the exact second a penalty to Washington's Bob Gould expired. That closed the gap to 2-1 and was the only equal-strength score other than Hatcher's winner.

Patrik Sundstrom, Peter's twin brother, tied it with a shorthanded goal on the Devils' first shot of the second period, after Doug Sulliman lifted the puck from Hatcher in center ice.

Pat Verbeek's power-play rebound, with Gartner off for hooking, gave the Devils their only lead at 10:39, but the Capitals unloaded the next 11 shots and Hunter tied it with his second extra-man score of the game.

Gustafsson, carrying the puck behind the New Jersey net, was clotheslined by Craig Wolanin, but managed to shove the puck ahead to Hunter, who stepped out and stuffed it past Sauve.

"Gus was able to push the puck to me and Sauve thought it was coming from the other side, so I had a clear path," Hunter said. "It's always nice to score goals, but as long as you play hard, the goals will come."

Hunter had been playing hard, but these were his first rewards in the goal column in eight games.

The power play had succeeded only twice in 35 attempts before clicking on two of five tonight. It has been a source of wonderment, because it was working very well a few weeks ago, when the team otherwise was struggling. Now, Washington has lost only once in its last seven games.

"Any team, even Edmonton, goes through dry spells," Hunter said. "The power play was great for a while and then there was a little tailspin. But we've been getting a lot of chances."

Murphy was more of a factor than he had been before his benching Monday in Toronto and Coach Bryan Murray said, "He was better and gave us much more as far as doing something with the puck. He stuck his nose in a few situations. But he can play better and I'm sure he will."

Murray added, "We're always going to be in one-goal hockey games, I guess. We had great chances, but we couldn't put it away. We had all the chances and we really did a super job over the last two periods."

Washington

2

1

1

4 New Jersey

1

2

0

3

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Washington, Hunter 12 (Murphy, Gustafsson), 4:51 (pp). 2, Washington, Gustafsson 11, 13:37 (sh). 3, New Jersey, Korn 4 (Kurvers, Cirella), 15:21. PENALTIES -- Wolanin, NJ (cross-checking), 4:23; Daneyko, NJ (holding), 10:12; Gould, Was (interference), 13:21.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- 4, New Jersey, Pa. Sundstrom 9 (Sulliman), 7:05 (sh). 5, New Jersey, Verbeek 21 (Muller, Broten), 10:39 (pp). 6, Washington, Hunter 13 (Gustafsson), 13:29 (pp). PENALTIES -- Cirella, NJ (hooking), :17; Smith, Was (hooking), 3:36; Cirella, NJ (hooking), 6:09; Gartner, Was (hooking), 10:17; Maley, NJ (holding), 12:15.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 7, Washington, Hatcher 10 (Pe.Sundstrom, Gustafsson), 15:39. PENALTIES -- Hatcher, Was (high-sticking), 11:22; Verbeek, NJ (high-sticking), 11:22; Smith, Was (hooking), 15:58; Hunter, Was (roughing), 15:58; Muller, NJ (roughing), 15:58.

Shots on goal:

Washington

12

14

8

34

New Jersey

10

5

5

20

Power-play Opportunities: Washington 2 of 5; New Jersey 1 of 4.

Goalies: Washington, Malarchuk (20 shots-17 saves). New Jersey, Sauve (34-30).

A -- 19,040.

Referee: Andy Van Hellemond. Linesmen -- Gord Broseker, Ray Scapinello.

Whalers 3, Maple Leafs 1:

In Hartford, Sylvain Turgeon scored his 16th goal and assisted on an insurance score by Ray Ferraro to lead the Whalers over Toronto.

Turgeon scored on a rising slap shot from the top of the left circle to break a 1-1 tie as the Whalers ended a four-game winless streak.

Red Wings 3, Blues 2:

In St. Louis, a late second-period goal by Doug Halward helped Detroit end a four-game losing streak.

North Stars 6, Blackhawks 4:

In Chicago, Brian Bellows' hat trick and a tie-breaking goal by Keith Acton with less than seven minutes left boosted Minnesota.