The Washington Capitals put themselves in the black last night for the first time this season by beating the silver-and-black of the Los Angeles Kings, 4-3, in front a crowd of 18,130 at Capital Centre.

Many in the house probably came especially to see Wayne Gretzky, and let history show that Gretzky had a goal and an assist to retake the NHL scoring lead from Calgary's Al MacInnis. But history also will need to reflect that the Capitals have a winning record for the first time in the 1990-91 season.

Though their 8-7-0 mark is hardly one of distinction, it is better than what has come before. The victory -- the first over the Kings at Capital Centre since 1987 -- pushed the Capitals' winning streak to three games. They have not won four in a row this season and last season they didn't do so until the Patrick Division finals. They will try to make that happen tonight at 7:35 when they play the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders burst that bubble called the New York Rangers last night, handing the Rangers their first loss at Madison Square Garden this season, 3-2.

The Capitals never trailed the Kings. They led 2-0, but the game was tied, 2-2 and 3-3, before Michal Pivonka decided things with his fourth goal of the season with 4:34 gone in the third period.

The Capitals just finished a five-game, 10-day road trip. They were deservedly proud of the 3-2 record during their sojourn and didn't want to lose that feeling. There was an unusual atmosphere in the locker room before the game, one player said. It was more like April and a playoff game than November and just the 15th of 80 regular season contests.

"We wanted to come out strong and not say to ourselves, 'Okay, we're home and we can relax,' " said John Druce, who scored the Capitals' second goal.

Kevin Hatcher got things started with his fourth goal. After Druce got his seventh, Nick Kypreos scored before Pivonka completed the Capitals' side of the ledger. Besides Gretzky's goal, Dave Taylor and Tony Granato scored for the Kings.

The Kings had started wonderfully this season, jumping out to a 7-1-1 record. They then began their first extended road trip and many eyes around the league focused on them to see if the magic would follow. Would the splendid goaltending of Kelly Hrudey and Daniel Berthiaume continue? Would rookie defenseman Rob Blake continue to shine? Would Gretzky hold his scoring lead? Some things were more certain than others.

The Kings lost, then won in Winnipeg and then beat the Islanders, before losing to the Rangers and Capitals. This trip will end Sunday in Chicago.

"We're not faring too poorly," said Hrudey, whose team still trails only the Rangers and Flames in the overall standings. "We have to hope when Calgary and Edmonton go on the road soon they will have as many tough games as we do. Let's not read too much into it or panic."

That seems reasonable, for the Kings do have a nice club. Gretzky's line with Tomas Sandstrom and Granato can score with anybody.

"In the last six periods, we've played five pretty good ones," Gretzky said. "Unfortunately, we're 0-2 {in those games}. We've got to go to Chicago and grind out a big win."

The Kings are not grinders by nature, but that is how the Capitals have to play to win. They need to protect their end and periodically get a big save, which is what Mike Liut did. His first period was sensational.

The Capitals gave him a lead to work with. Mike Ridley pressured Blake into a bad pass that Steve Leach intercepted. He put it on Hatcher's stick as the defensemen cut in on the far side.

"He couldn't have made a better pass," Hatcher said.

Druce then deflected in Peter Bondra's shot for a 2-0 edge with 7:52 left. Gretzky re-routed a pass from Sandstrom right on stride to Granato. He snapped a wrist shot past Liut to chop the Capitals' first intermission lead to 2-1.

Taylor had room in the right circle to slap a shot past Liut for a 2-2 tie with 8:23 left in the second period. Kings defensemen Marty McSorley and Larry Robinson let Kypreos walk in front from the corner to push the Capital back into a 3-2 lead. But McSorley fed Gretzky in the slot and then he put a wrist shot between defenseman Bob Rouse's legs and past Liut for a 3-3 tie.

On the game-winner, Pivonka carried the puck over the blueline, looking mainly to pass. With the wings unfilled, Pivonka shot from about 40 feet out and behind a defenseman's leg.

"I saw the hole between his legs all the way," Pivonka said jokingly.

"I always expect a player to shoot, but he just beat me," Hrudey said. "I wish it hadn't been 3-3 in the third period. I'd have rather had it be a 6-2 game."