Two little guys with big hearts gave the New York Rangers a vital breath of life last night.

John Vanbiesbrouck stopped 24 shots for his fifth career shutout and Marcel Dionne collected two goals and an assist as the Rangers frustrated the Washington Capitals, 3-0, before 17,764 at Capital Centre.

Vanbiesbrouck, 5-foot-7, was recording New York's first regular-season zero since he blanked New Jersey on March 31, 1986.

Dionne, 5-foot-8, boosted his career goal total to 716, one shy of New York General Manager Phil Esposito, the No. 2 man in NHL history behind Gordie Howe's 801.

The Capitals, by losing to the two New York teams on successive nights, remained in fourth place in the Patrick Division with 54 points and lost ground to the teams above -- Philadelphia, the Islanders and Pittsburgh. The last-place Rangers, who could have been dealt a crippling blow had they lost, crept within sight of Washington with 49.

Expressing the majority feeling among the Rangers, Dionne said, "To get a shutout in Washington, against a good team like this, is very important for us. But it's just one game."

The Capitals, after opening the dressing room briefly to the media, gathered in the training room for a half-hour meeting with the coaches. Afterward, alternate captain Bob Gould said, "There's no comment. It was a closed-door meeting."

Washington had won its three previous games against the Rangers, but this was no contest. New York unloaded 42 shots, matching the season high against the Capitals, and the first-period total of 18 equaled another season mark.

"We struggled to make a good pass and we struggled around the net," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "It's hard to understand, after we had such excellent performances last weekend against Montreal and Philly."

The Capitals did not do much right in this one. Twice they drew penalties which turned power plays into two-man shortages. The first such occasion led to the only goal New York needed.

With Ranger Norm Maciver off for hooking, Dale Hunter was penalized for interference against Vanbiesbrouck. A minute later, Larry Murphy pulled down Walt Poddubny. Four seconds after Maciver returned, Dionne took a pass from Tomas Sandstrom and fired from the left wing circle over the left shoulder of goaltender Clint Malarchuk.

Before the first period ended, the roles were reversed. Dionne made a fine pass off the left wing boards to Sandstrom, who sailed in on a breakaway behind defenseman Bill Houlder and also beat Malarchuk top shelf, glove side.

Dionne finished the scoring early in the second period. Don Maloney made a superb spinning pass in the neutral zone to send Dionne in one-on-one against defenseman Greg Smith. With Smith screening Malarchuk, Dionne sent the puck between the goalie's legs.

"Prior to the game I was talking to Eddie Giacomin," Dionne related, "and I said, 'Somebody has to go out and take charge.' Fortunately, it was me. But the whole team played well, we had good jump and we finished our checks very well . . . and to get the shutout, we'll say, 'Thank you.' "

In truth, Malarchuk made far more quality saves than Vanbiesbrouck. In his first appearance since Jan. 26, Malarchuk was sensational.

"Certainly, goaltending is not a problem," Murray said. "We're not fair to them. Malarchuk in the early going has to make some great stops to keep us in it. But we don't get anything to help him."

Bengt Gustafsson had six shots and most of the good chances for the Capitals. But Vanbiesbrouck made some good stops and was lucky when the Swede, on a shorthanded two-on-one with Murphy, slid the puck through the crease after faking out Maciver and Vanbiesbrouck.

Especially subdued by the goalie was Washington winger Yvon Corriveau. Forced out of the game with a badly bruised left forearm, he lamented, "I was going by Vanbiesbrouck and he gave me a good {slash}, right across the elbow pad."