It is a new year and, for fans at Capital Centre, a new team. The Washington Capitals, prominent nonachievers in November and much of December, were almost flawless yesterday in shackling the Stanley Cup-champion Edmonton Oilers, 2-0.

Goalie Clint Malarchuk stopped 28 shots to record the Capitals' first shutout in 22 months. But he needed to make only six saves over the last 23 minutes, after Bengt Gustafsson produced the one goal that mattered.

That came on a power play, Gustafsson converting a Dale Hunter pass that struck defender Dave Hannan's stick as it skipped through the crease.

Gustafsson fed Kelly Miller for the empty-net clincher with 11 seconds remaining as the Capitals extended their unbeaten streak to four games. They have lost only one of their last nine, have climbed above .500 at 18-17-5 and are only two points out of first place in the Patrick Division.

"There are a lot of teams in there at the top, but for us it's good just to be over .500," Hunter said. "We have to keep it going."

The Oilers were without center Wayne Gretzky, who has a twisted knee, and there were many boos from the sellout crowd of 18,130 when his absence was confirmed. But by game's end most of the folks were cheering a remarkable effort by the home club.

"As far as discipline and effort go, that certainly was one of our good games this season, if not the best," said Coach Bryan Murray. "We were under control, we made safe plays, guys played within themselves most of the time. We did an excellent job coming back. We had a couple of turnovers on attempted breakouts, but I can't recall our being outnumbered in our zone once all night."

A key to the Capitals' victory was the play of left wing Yvon Corriveau, who was summoned from Binghamton Sunday and has won a permanent job if he continues to perform as he did yesterday. Corriveau three times drew hooking penalties from Edmonton defenders as he broke for the net, and No. 3, against Moe Mantha, led to Gustafsson's goal.

"I'm just trying to skate hard and go for the net," Corriveau said. "I almost broke through about four times, but they pulled me down. It doesn't matter, as long as they call the penalties."

Of course, there are at least two sides to every penalty and Edmonton Coach Glen Sather said, "{Referee Andy} Van Hellemond cost us the game. He made the easy home-team call. He was way behind, about 50 or 60 feet. He couldn't possibly have seen the play. It was a home-team call."

Sixteen seconds after Mantha went off and three minutes before the close of the second period, Hunter came out of the left-wing corner and bounced a pass to Gustafsson for a tapin at the far post. Hannan tried to knock the puck away, but merely served to poke it past the reach of goalie Grant Fuhr onto Gustafsson's stick.

"I saw Gus coming around the corner of the net and it hit the defenseman's stick and started bouncing," Hunter said.

Gustafsson said, "I was just sticking around the net and Hunts was coming out of the corner with the puck. He saw me and tried to give it to me, but it hit a stick and took a little longer to get there."

Gustafsson played a superb all-round game, helping to kill off four penalties besides being an offensive force, and Murray said, "Gus was really intense. He was on top of the puck and he checked extremely well. He likes challenges. He always seems to play well against Edmonton."

Gustafsson agreed that the Oilers are special, saying, "Sure, it's easier to get your head into a game against them. They're my old team {he played two games for Edmonton in the World Hockey Association} and they're the champions. You want to do everything you can to beat them."

Washington has won seven of its last eight against the Oilers and John Muckler, Edmonton's associate coach, said, "We just don't seem to play well here. I've seen Washington play better than this, but we didn't generate anything."

Obviously, Gretzky's absence was a blow to the Oilers, whose winning streak ended at four. Still, it must be remembered that Washington won its previous three games against Edmonton while holding Gretzky scoreless.

"No doubt Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player in the world and there's no telling how big a force the Edmonton Oilers are with him, but without him they still have {Mark} Messier and {Glenn} Anderson and {Jari} Kurri," Malarchuk said. "They bust through there pretty good.

"But my game was relatively basic. The guys played so well in front of me, you could have cut this {game} puck in 20 pieces and given every guy a piece."

Malarchuk made two outstanding saves. During a first-period power play, he got his stick on a close-up shot by Craig Simpson and the puck hit the post and went wide. With 2:50 left, he blocked a point-blank drive by Craig MacTavish.

The shutout was Malarchuk's first since he blanked Buffalo while playing for Quebec on Dec. 13, 1986. The previous shutout by a Washington goaltender came on March 1, 1986, when Al Jensen stopped the New York Rangers.

The Capitals blew 2-0 leads last week against Montreal and Philadelphia, but this time there was no attempt to sit on the tenuous advantage. Only some big stops by Fuhr kept the Capitals from padding their margin in the third period, when they outshot the Oilers, 12-4.

Edmonton 0 0 0 0 Washington 0 1 1 2

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- None. PENALTIES -- Graves, Edm (hooking), 1:56; Beukeboom, Edm (hooking), 5:37; Stevens, Was (hooking), 6:45; Anderson, Edm (roughing), 16:08; Stevens, Was (roughing), 16:08; Corriveau, Was (hooking), 18:40.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Washington, Gustafsson 12 (Hunter, Murphy), 17:00 (pp). PENALTIES -- Lowe, Edm (hooking), 6:10; Malarchuk, Was, served by Laughlin (holding), 7:41; Mantha, Edm (hooking), 16:44; Hatcher, Was (hooking), 19:49.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 2, Washington, Miller 5 (Gustafsson, Langway), 19:49 (en). PENALTIES -- Adams, Was, major (fighting), 7:23; McSorley, Edm, major-misconduct (fighting), 7:23.

Shots on goal:

Edmonton 13 11 4 28 Washington 8 9 12 29

Power-play opportunities -- Edmonton 0 of 4; Washington 1 of 4.

Goalies -- Edmonton, Fuhr (28 shots-27 saves). Washington, Malarchuk (28-28).

A -- 18,130.

Referee -- Andy van Hellemond. Linesmen -- Gord Broseker, Dan McCourt.