EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., FEB. 17 -- Dave Christian continued to wield a hot hockey stick tonight, scoring two goals as the Washington Capitals earned an important 4-3 decision over the New Jersey Devils.

The Devils tested Washington goalie Clint Malarchuk 25 times over the last two periods, but beat him only twice as he played brilliant relief for ailing Pete Peeters.

Washington climbed back into second place in the NHL's Patrick Division, two points behind Philadelphia. The fifth-place Devils, who could have closed within one point of the Capitals, fell five back.

New Jersey pulled out every possible stop before the final buzzer ended the excitement. With 90 seconds left in regulation, the Devils challenged the legality of Bengt Gustafsson's stick and were upheld by referee Andy Van Hellemond.

Shortly thereafter, goalie Bob Sauve was lifted for a sixth skater, giving New Jersey a two-man advantage, but it never put a shot on goal down the stretch, as defenseman Scott Stevens blocked Craig Wolanin's final bid for a tie.

"This was such a big win," said Coach Bryan Murray. "When you get ahead by a couple, if you ever lose it, particularly when you're going on a long road trip, it can make things very tough."

The first of two goals by Aaron Broten gave the Devils an early lead, but rebounds by Mike Ridley and Mike Gartner had Washington in front by first period's end.

As the second period began, Malarchuk replaced Peeters and faced a barrage while the Devils enjoyed a two-man advantage for 91 seconds. The shots were 8-0 after eight minutes, but there was no score and Christian eventually converted a Ridley pass for a 3-1 lead.

The puck actually struck Greg Adams, whose rather obvious presence in the crease led to some bitter complaints by the Devils. However, since Adams had slid in after being slashed by Joe Cirella, Van Hellemond allowed the goal.

"I was breaking for the net and Joe Cirella whacked me so hard I fell," Adams said. "I was trying to stop and I banged into the net. I got up and I was coming out when Dave Christian's shot hit me in the leg."

Broten's goal-mouth conversion of a Pat Verbeek pass pulled the Devils within a goal on their 15th shot of the period -- Washington had four -- 33 seconds before the intermission.

Some superb stickhandling by Gustafsson, who lured Cirella down and fed Christian for a tapin, made it 4-2 with 11:36 left in regulation time. It was Christian's fifth goal in four games, his 31st of the season.

"The puck's going in for me," Christian said. "I have to continue to get in position. I feel confident that if I get the puck with a good opportunity, I'll score."

Verbeek converted Broten's feed from behind the net with 7:30 remaining, but there was no further scoring, despite the stick measurement, which dragged on in part because what was involved tested the limits of technicality. A bubble had formed on the fiberglass blade that made the width slightly greater than the prescribed three-inch limit. The Devils noticed it when Gustafsson's stick landed in their bench.

Malarchuk earned his first victory since Jan. 13 and said, "I saw a lot of shots right away, which was kind of good. When I went in cold, I wasn't feeling right on, but once I was tested, I got my concentration and timing, got in the flow of the game and got hot."

Peeters said, "Through the warmup I was pretty sluggish and I was starting to wonder. After the first period, I felt like I'd played a whole game. I couldn't go on and I was glad to see Clint play so well."

Defenseman Rod Langway returned to action after missing two games with a strained right thigh. He joined Stevens in some superb defensive work, especially during the two-man shortage.