EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., MARCH 2 -- The Washington Capitals are a tough team to play two nights in a row. The bigger, stronger Capitals manhandled the New Jersey Devils, 6-1, tonight to complete a back-to-back sweep.

The Capitals' ninth victory in 10 games vaulted them into second place in the Patrick Division, three points behind Philadelphia and one in front of the New York Islanders, who lost to the New York Rangers tonight.

Washington had beaten the Devils, 5-3, at Capital Centre Tuesday and tonight's follow-up dealt a critical blow to the playoff hopes of New Jersey, now three points behind the fourth-place Rangers.

Six players scored for Washington, but the main man was defenseman Scott Stevens, who had two key assists and turned in a classic performance in front of Clint Malarchuk.

Malarchuk, his stomach calmed but his legs still weak from a virus, came within 4 minutes 15 seconds of his fourth shutout in six games. He was deprived by Mark Johnson's second shorthanded goal in two games.

"You get a few, you lose a few like that," Malarchuk said. "He made a good shot. You don't dwell on one goal. We played a great game for 60 minutes, that's the important thing."

Sean Burke, New Jersey's heralded rookie goalie from the Canadian Olympic team, made his NHL debut in relief of Alain Chevrier and yielded two goals in six third-period shots.

The first came on a breakaway by Mike Gartner and it indicated that Burke may not be the savior some folks have claimed.

"It was one of those welcomes to the league," said Gartner, who has 41 goals and at least one point in 10 straight games.

"Yvon {Corriveau, a junior teammate of Burke in Toronto} told me that if he was weak anywhere, it was low on the stick side. I had plenty of time, so I shot there and beat him just inside the post."

The Capitals and the crowd of 12,760 were surprised that Burke did not start the game, Instead, the Devils sent out Chevrier, who carried an 0-6 record against Washington and was beaten on the first shot he faced, by Mike Ridley at the 40-second mark.

"We went with Chevy because Sean just arrived, he took some shots this morning and our goaltending coach {Bob Bellemore} thought he was a little rusty," said New Jersey Coach Jim Schoenfeld. "I didn't want to start him if he was rusty, because we needed the two points.

"But I've never seen a tighter team than I had tonight. The guys were trying hard, but they were pressing too much and nothing worked. When Washington scored on the first shot, it overwhelmed them."

Stevens made the first of many great plays to set up Ridley, carrying the puck from his own end all the way to the hashmarks along the left-wing boards, then making a perfect goal-mouth pass.

Not long after, with Washington enjoying a two-man advantage because of Craig Wolanin's cross check on the back of Bengt Gustafsson's neck, Stevens made another sparkling play.

Dale Hunter fanned on a shot in the slot and the puck slid to Stevens at the left point. He found Dave Christian open at the left post for a 2-0 lead.

It was 3-0 before the first period ended, Greg Adams wheeling out of the right-wing corner and drilling a shot just under the crossbar.

The Devils were never able to get untracked in the first period. They managed to fire only four shots at Malarchuk in the first period, none in the last 13 minutes. So it was no surprise the Devils skated off to a serenade of boos.

Stevens repeatedly moved the puck out of danger in the first period, once clearing it from the crease after Malarchuk lost sight of it.

"Scotty's been playing so well for I don't know how long, at least a month," Malarchuk said. "He's getting stronger every game. I don't know how much more he can do, but he seems to do more every game."

Corriveau scored on a breakaway to make it 4-0 and then the fans had a rare opportunity to cheer when Burke took over the Devils' netminding duties at the start of the third period. He faced six shots and, besides Gartner's breakaway, was beaten on a 30-footer between his pads by Kevin Hatcher.

"There may be better ways to start out than facing Mike Gartner on a breakaway, but it would have been a great way to start out if I'd stopped him," Burke said. "I wasn't upset that I didn't start, although I was ready if they'd asked me. Yes, I wanted to start. You want to start every game."

Schoenfeld said he elected to put Burke in for the third period because, "I hoped he might spark our team and if not, it would at least give him a period of work before he starts Saturday in Boston."

These teams are unlikely to meet in the playoffs, which is probably just as well, because tempers have become somewhat frayed.

Before tonight's game, assistant coach Doug McKay of the Devils approached Washington Coach Bryan Murray and shouted words to the effect that this game was going to be different from Tuesday.

After the game, Murray spotted McKay and yelled, "You're right, you're right. That was a nice smart comment for a guy, McKay."

The two were screaming at each other in the corridor outside the Capitals' dressing room and Schoenfeld, hearing the voices, interrupted his postgame press conference to serve as peacemaker.

Schoenfeld sought the cause of the quarrel and Murray told him.

"So you're a wise guy because you won," Schoenfeld said to Murray.

"You're unbelievable," Murray responded.

Afterward, Schoenfeld smiled and said, "I'll have to get a uniform for him {McKay}."

The Capitals hold a 5-1 margin over the Devils this season and since the Colorado franchise moved to New Jersey in 1982, the series stands at 32-5-4.