NEW YORK, FEB. 11 -- Like a group of 20 drowning men, the Washington Capitals could see an entire season passing before their eyes tonight.

Instead of collapsing when a four-goal lead was reduced to one, however, the Capitals guarded that thin margin for almost 20 minutes, until Lou Franceschetti provided the relief of a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers.

"Even when it's 4-0, we make it exciting," said Coach Bryan Murray. "If we'd have lost it after the way we were ahead, it would have been a real problem.

"We haven't been playing with a lot of confidence and we haven't been scoring much, so to get four and lose, we'd have been in trouble. Now, the reverse is true. Protecting the lead the way we did in the third period should help a lot."

Had they lost, the Capitals would have fallen to fifth place in the Patrick Division, one point ahead of the sixth-place Rangers. As it turned out, they clung to fourth, a mere two points behind the second-place New York Islanders, who will visit Capital Centre Friday.

Even with the victory, there was unpleasant news for the Capitals. Defenseman Rod Langway suffered a pulled muscle in his right thigh on the final shift of the first period and is not expected to play Friday. Instead, Grant Ledyard most likely will make his Washington debut.

Defenseman Scott Stevens lost one tooth and had two others bent back when Jan Erixon shoved his stick in Stevens' mouth in the first period. It did not stop Stevens from skating more than half of the third period, when he played brilliantly.

"It was really important to win this one," Stevens said. "We were in a skid and it's hard to get out of it. It keeps building. Tonight, it was nice to see different guys score and Louie's goal was a great big one for us, because they were putting some pressure on us."

The first 21 minutes were nothing but laughs for Washington, as Mike Ridley, Dave Christian, Stevens and Kelly Miller built a 4-0 lead, Ridley scoring just 27 seconds into the game.

The Rangers did not put an honest shot on goal until only 38 seconds remained in the first period, by which time the Capitals had changed goaltenders twice.

Pete Peeters played the first 13 minutes, then was relieved by Clint Malarchuk for 4 1/2 minutes while he answered a basic call of nature.

"All of a sudden, I had to go," Peeters said. "How do you say that? 'Why did you leave the ice?' I don't know how you answer that.

"I do know that when we came here, we had to have this game. We had to have a few games and we haven't gotten them, but tonight we get a 4-0 lead and quit on ourselves. We thought we could coast and you can't do that in the NHL.

"The coach didn't have to say anything after the second period. We knew we weren't doing the job. With five teams in a pack, it's too tight for comfort and the importance of this game speaks for itself in the standings."

After Miller made it 4-0 early in the second period, Bob Froese was summoned to the relief of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who blanked Washington Saturday but was beaten on one-third of the shots he faced tonight.

Froese made some big stops and the Rangers responded with three goals in less than four minutes, inciting the crowd of 17,334 to frenzy.

Brian Mullen deflected a Marcel Dionne shot, James Patrick netted a 30-footer down the slot and Walt Poddubny collected his 300th NHL point on a power-play rebound of a shot by Tomas Sandstrom.

Outshot, 16-6, in the second period, the Capitals regrouped during the intermission.

"I told them this wasn't the final game of the year and they ought to relax," Murray said. "I told them to play poised, not to stand still and we'd be fine. There's enough character on this team that I didn't have to say much."

Over the first eight minutes of the third period, Washington outshot the Rangers, 9-2. Froese, making his first appearance since Jan. 19, was sensational, making four saves in a 10-second span while Sandstrom served a cross-checking penalty.

After Washington's Greg Smith was penalized for kneeing with 9:15 left, it was Peeters' turn to come up big. He stopped three shots on the power play and then Franceschetti iced it on Washington's only shot of the last 12 minutes.

Dale Hunter prevented the Rangers from clearing the puck and Bob Gould skated behind the net and flipped a centering pass into the crease. Franceschetti, breaking for the net, tipped it up and in. It was his second of the season and the other was a big one, too, tying St. Louis with 2:54 remaining on Dec. 20, during another down time for Washington.

"I guess there's a couple of goals left in that sweater," Franceschetti said. "I read off what Bobby was doing. I knew he wouldn't send it up the slot and risk giving them a breakout. When he threw it out, it hit Bob Froese's stick and lay there and I was able to hit it.

"When the team's struggling, they look to the guys with the least amount of points to help out and I'm sure trying to."

Said New York Coach Michel Bergeron: "When you give up a goal the first minute of the game, the last minute of the period and the first minute of the second period, you're going to have a tough time. We showed some character in the second period."

Devils 4, Canadiens 2:

Andy Brickley, recently recalled from the minor leagues, scored two goals and John MacLean had one and set up another as New Jersey, playing at home, broke a three-game losing streak.

The defeat was the third straight for the Canadiens, their longest losing streak of the season, and kept them a point behind first-place Boston in the Adams Division.

The Devils never trailed, although Montreal twice got within a goal and had an apparent game-tying goal by Kjell Dahlin waved off midway through the third period because of a penalty.

MacLean set up a first-period goal by Aaron Broten with a perfect cross-ice pass and then put in a rebound of a Kirk Muller shot 13:06 into the middle period.

Maple Leafs 4, Islanders 3:

Vince Damphousse scored two goals, including the game-winner with just 22 seconds remaining, and had two assists in leading host Toronto over New York.

Damphousse gave Toronto a 2-1 lead just 16 seconds into the second period after he took the puck near center ice, moved into the New York zone and turned defenseman Ken Morrow around before beating goaltender Kelly Hrudey with a 20-foot shot high to his glove side.

Oilers 7, Canucks 2:

Kevin Lowe ignited a four-goal first period and Mike Krushelnyski scored twice as Edmonton won in Vancouver.

Wayne Gretzky had a first-period assist and closed the scoring at 17:52 of the third for Edmonton.

Kings 5, Nordiques 3:

Luc Robitaille reeled off three straight goals for the third hat trick of his two-year career and Los Angeles won a home game. Jimmy Carson added two goals and an assist, the last an empty-net goal with 41 seconds left.