The Washington Capitals came home yesterday from one of the strangest and most successful road trips in the club's history, a 12-day coast-to-coast odyssey that began in New Jersey and ended a few miles away on Long Island.

The beginning and ending featured important victories over Patrick Division opponents. The overall mark was 4-1. That was in contrast to a five-game January trip that finished at 1-4, when the victory was in Los Angeles, site of the defeat this time.

The three most recent triumphs came on shutouts by Clint Malarchuk, who was kayoed by a four-goal barrage in his other start at Los Angeles. He was the main man on this trip because Pete Peeters, the NHL's No. 1 goalie, was struck first by a virus and later by a shot that put him on crutches.

Peeters' left foot, struck on the inside below the ankle by Kelly Miller's shot in Friday's practice, was still very painful yesterday. A splint was applied to the back of the leg and heel to prevent him from putting weight on the foot.

Although X-rays revealed no fracture Friday, more were scheduled for today because of the absence of improvement.

Of his spectacular performances, Malarchuk said: "You get some tough shots every game, but the big thing with this team is that there aren't many rebounds. The guys let me see every shot; they force the other team to shoot from unproductive spots and they clear the rebounds. I can't remember any rebounds in any of my shutouts.

"We have the most talented defensemen in the league and our forwards have to be the hardest working. They come back hard."

The Capitals' 19-7 scoring advantage in the five road games prompted team captain Rod Langway to say: "We're scoring goals and we're building confidence in our offense. Defensively, I don't know what's going on. These days, with high-scoring offenses and refs calling so many penalties, not many teams get three shutouts in four games."

There were extenuating circumstances to the 4-3 loss in Los Angeles. Before that game, the Capitals spent two days at La Quinta Country Club near Palm Springs, playing golf and generally enjoying themselves.

"We didn't like the loss in L.A. and certainly we didn't plan to lose the game, but we felt that a couple of days off would be beneficial in the long run," said Coach Bryan Murray. "I think our game against the Islanders backed that up.

"In the first period, we moved the puck like the best team we could be at this time of year. It was the end of the trip and the guys wanted to perform well before we came home. We should be able to carry it along, because this did start at home."

Actually, the Capitals' resurgence began after the all-star break with a 5-3 victory over the Rangers in New York. Then they defeated the Islanders and Calgary at home before beginning the trip with a 4-3 victory in New Jersey, when Malarchuk played brilliantly in relief of the ailing Peeters.

The shutouts in Winnipeg (6-0) and Minnesota (3-0) followed and then, after stumbling in Los Angeles, the Capitals whipped the Islanders, 3-0.

"The trip was just unbelievable; three shutouts and four out of five," Murray said. "If we had said before we left that we hoped to do that well, we'd have been accused of kidding ourselves.

"The game we lost was one we really figured to win, there and Minnesota. But we knew L.A. had lots of offense and they came out with a lot of pizazz. It wasn't just that we had distractions; they played very well."

Unfortunately for the Capitals, the Kings did not play that well Saturday and were beaten by Philadelphia, 8-6. That extended the Flyers' unbeaten streak to six games.

The Islanders were unbeaten in seven games between losses to Washington, so the Capitals came home in third place in the Patrick Division, five points behind the Flyers and one behind the Islanders.

When they left on Feb. 16, the Capitals were second, four behind the Flyers and one ahead of the Islanders. Obviously, there is little room for error as the three teams fight for first place.

Of the Capitals' 17 remaining games, 10 will be at home. No road game will be farther north than Boston or farther west than Pittsburgh.

Washington is the NHL's defensive leader, yielding 188 goals; no other team has allowed fewer than 200. Its penalty total of 1,315 minutes is the league's lowest.

Defenseman John Barrett rejoined the Capitals yesterday, after playing five games for Binghamton. Right wing Steve Leach will report today, after his tour with the U.S. Olympic team. The way the Capitals are playing, neither is likely to break into the lineup.

"John Barrett has been out for a year and it's going to be tough for him," Murray said. "We want to take a real good look at Steve Leach in practice, but our forwards are working so hard it would be unfair to change unless somebody is hurt."

Flames 3, Oilers 2:

Joel Otto and Jim Peplinski scored third-period goals in Edmonton to rally the Flames into first place in the NHL standings.

Otto beat Grant Fuhr at 6:33 of the third period to make it 2-2, then Peplinski, just back from the Canadian Olympic team, won the game at 9:15.

Blackhawks 7, Penguins 5:

In Chicago, the Blackhawks' Rick Vaive got his ninth NHL hat trick and teammate Steve Larmer reached the 30-goal level for the fifth time in six years.

Pittsburgh's Dan Quinn got his second career hat trick, but couldn't keep the Penguins from losing their sixth straight.

Devils 8, North Stars 6:

Pat Verbeek scored four goals and Kirk Muller three in the victory in East Rutherford, N.J.

Verbeek has 36 goals, setting a Devils' record for goals in a season. (Greg Adams once had 35.) Verbeek's four goals also tied a franchise record for one game set in 1982 by Bobby MacMillan.

Sabres 5, Jets 3:

Benoit Hogue scored his first NHL goal with 9:14 remaining in the third period to lead the victory in Buffalo.

Dave Andreychuk passed to him in the slot and he slapped the puck past Steve Penney for a 4-3 lead. Mike Ramsey got an empty-net goal with 37 seconds left.

Kings 2, Canucks 0:

Steve Duchesne and Jimmy Fox each scored a goal in Vancouver. Glenn Healy stopped only 13 shots in the shutout. The Kings had 41 shots.