If it weren't absolutely the most glorious night in the history of the Washington Capitals, it ranked way, way up there.

Dino Ciccarelli, the team's leading playoff scorer, was on crutches, out for the series and maybe the season with a sprained knee. Don Beaupre, the team's best playoff goaltender, was in the locker room, out for the night and maybe the series with a pulled groin muscle he suffered in the opening minutes. Michal Pivonka had the flu. Rod Langway appeared to hurt his right knee in a third-period collision.

How desperate were the Capitals for healthy bodies last night? After Beaupre went off, the team found the Baltimore Skipjacks' third-string goalie doing color commentary on radio, and told him to report to Capital Centre as quickly as possible. He showed up in uniform for the third period.

(My first question is, how'd he get through that Beltway traffic so fast? Second, how is it that in hockey you can summon a guy literally out of the stands and have him play that night? Now this is a strategy the Bullets should have considered. When John Williams went down, Bob Ferry should have signed Phil Chenier on the spot, during a Home Team Sports commercial break, and put him in uniform at halftime.)

The impression of the Capitals last night was that they could have finished the game with Terry Murray in net and still could have beaten the Rangers handily. It was as complete, as inspired, as spirited a performance as the Washington Capitals have turned in in a long time. Maybe ever.

Before the game Ciccarelli said he didn't buy the notion that the Capitals, without his fury, were headed toward quick elimination. "You have to look for a different hero every series anyway," he said.

As it turned out, the Capitals found a different hero just about every other trip up ice. John Druce (two goals), Geoff Courtnall (two goals), Mike Ridley (one goal), Calle Johansson (one goal) and Mike Liut (only one goal allowed) came up, as they say, very, very big. Druce was one giant ball of energy, intimidating the Rangers behind the net and in the corners, screening goaltender Mike Richter whenever possible, and pouncing on every rebound and loose puck. Druce became Ciccarelli for an evening, even passing his injured teammate with two goals for a team-record nine in the playoffs.

This may have been just the set of circumstances Liut needed to get his game back. Liut, who gave up seven goals in Game 1, didn't have time to think too much last night. Beaupre slumped to the ice and Liut jumped over the boards, no warmup, and produced like he did in the regular season when only Montreal's Patrick Roy was his equal.

The Capitals 7-1 victory gives them a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series and it is a cushion they'll need. One popular (and proven) theory in sports is that a team usually plays superbly the first game after its star player(s) gets injured, then falls back to earth. The Capitals earned this victory and are thankful for it. Beating the Rangers without Ciccarelli and Beaupre, however, is not something to count on.

Bernie Nicholls, the Rangers' flamboyant goal scorer, did a double-take 20 minutes before the start of the game when he saw Ciccarelli in a snazzy blue sweatsuit instead of his home white uniform. "Hope you get back soon," Nicholls said, after hearing Ciccarelli explain what happened to his sprained left knee.

Nicholls couldn't have meant it. Not really and truly. It was the sporting thing to say, but deep down inside, the Rangers know their chances of winning this series improved with Ciccarelli out because of the first knee injury of his career.

Ciccarelli looked like the picture of health before the game. He was smiling, felt good. He'd just left the hospital where he'd fed his brand new daughter, Ashley Anne. His wife, Linda, was healthy, as was the baby. "The timing of this is so strange," Ciccarelli said before his teammates went out to battle the Rangers. "If Linda hadn't had the baby, I would be really down, I know it. But heck, I'm not asking for any sympathy. Having the baby, this puts a lot of things in perspective."

He was just one of many smiling Capitals afterward. One victory at home can't be overestimated this early in the series, but perhaps it does shed some light on this group of Capitals. Ciccarelli said he believes the team has enough talent and guts to make up for his absence. "That's why they call this a team sport," he said. "The Rangers have been playing without {defenseman Brian} Leetch {out since March with a broken ankle} and they've still played well.

"Johnny Druce is playing unbelievably. Hopefully, Druce will get somebody else going. You need balanced scoring, so perhaps he can help get Geoff Courtnall going, get Johnny Tucker a couple of goals."

Ciccarelli wasn't hearing any excuses. Druce came to him more than a week ago and asked about Dino's scoring outburst. Ciccarelli told Druce to get himself in front of the net, go for more deflections and rebounds, camp out in front of the goalie. "They call them garbage goals," Ciccarelli said, "but they still count." Druce did what Ciccarelli said and got hot.

Ciccarelli had more advice before last night's game. He told his teammates to "get yourself somewhere around the net. Create some havoc in front of the goalie. And don't wait for the perfect play all the time."

The Capitals, in the very first period, showed they were paying attention. Druce took a couple of pokes at a rebound and scored after the second one for a 1-0 lead. Druce then set up Courtnall's goal that made it 2-0. The usually reluctant-to-shoot Capitals bombarded Richter with 49 shots to New York's 19.

Even so, the team doctor probably didn't know where to turn first after the game. Bum left knee on one side, bum right knee on the other. Ciccarelli is still out. Beaupre may be available for Game 5 Wednesday, maybe not. Langway suffered a bruise but hopefully nothing more serious. The one thing we know for sure about the Washington Capitals is this: It's always something.