There was a rumor floating around the National Hockey League that the Edmonton Oilers might be interested in making a deal for Washington Capitals center Mike Ridley.

"Never," Capitals General Manager David Poile said yesterday when asked if Oilers General Manager Glen Sather had called to talk about such a trade.

Well, Sather might be on the line soon, although the price just went up. Ridley scored three goals last night -- including two shorthanded -- to lead the Capitals to a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils before 16,620 at Capital Centre.

Dino Ciccarelli returned to the lineup after missing 21 games with a fractured thumb suffered Oct. 20 against New Jersey and scored the first goal in a three-goal run. Peter Bondra had the other Capitals goal on one of three assists by Mikhail Tatarinov. Don Beaupre played another good game in goal, winning his third straight.

The triumph was the third in a row for the Capitals, who are now tied with the Devils for third place in the Patrick Division. The Capitals have a 17-14 record, and only once before this season (at 10-7) were they three games over .500. These two teams will meet again tonight at 7:45 at Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford.

Ridley had been in something of a scoring slump -- six goals in his 29 games -- but he fixed that in becoming only the third Capital (Dave Christian and Mike Gartner are the others) to score two shorthanded goals in a game.

The Capitals' power play was top ranked in the league when the game started and their penalty-killers were second. Each group scored two goals, while shutting out the Devils in both types of situations.

"That's what they have been living on all season," New Jersey Coach John Cunniff said, mixing disgust with admiration. "At five on five, we win, 2-1."

Ridley has had a nagging case of the flu much of the last few weeks, and finally was kept out of the lineup Saturday against the Islanders on Long Island.

"That's no excuse," he said of his prolonged cold and lack of points. "It led to a lot of frustration on my part. In that time, I was trying to improve the defensive part of the game. Hopefully, I can continue in both capacities."

Several forwards and most of the team's defensemen kill penalties, but Ridley, Kelly Miller, Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher are usually the first group.

"As long as I've played," Tatarinov said through interpreter John Chapin, "I have never seen four guys play as well in shorthanded situations."

After winning in Pittsburgh Wednesday, most of the Capitals had Thursday off. There was no pregame skate yesterday because of a practice session for figure skaters in the world professional championships.

"I wasn't happy with the way we played the first half of the game," said Capitals Coach Terry Murray, who saw his team fall behind by 1-0 on Pat Conacher's goal with 6:58 left in the first period.

But Ciccarelli got things started, as he is wont to do. He threw a big check on his first shift and then did something he practices most days -- deflecting a puck out of midair and into the net to give the Capitals a 1-1 tie with 6:08 gone in the second period.

"It felt great to play again," said Ciccarelli, who got a big hand from the crowd. "When the guys are winning, you want to be a part of it."

Bondra converted a pretty pass from Tatarinov for a power-play goal and a 2-1 lead. After Miller dislodged the puck from John MacLean, Ridley reached around Devils goalie Sean Burke on a breakaway for the first shorthanded goal and a 3-1 lead after two periods.

But Al Stewart scored 6:28 into the third period, cutting New Jersey's deficit to 3-2, and the Devils had a power play 50 seconds later.

"That should have been it," Cunniff said. But Miller and Ridley worked their magic again.

Miller blocked a shot, creating a two-on-one break. Ridley needed three tries, but finally wrapped the puck around the post and off Burke for a goal, a moment before he was hit in the mouth by Brendan Shanahan's elbow.

With three minutes left, Tatarinov fed Ridley for a power-play goal and a hat trick.

"Physically, I'm starting to feel some jump," Ridley said. "When you're skating well and handling the puck, that's when you'll get the bounces."

Capitals Notes: Right wing Alan May, who injured his left shoulder during a fight Wednesday in Pittsburgh, did not play last night and won't tonight, either. May was injured when he fell and Pittsburgh's Jay Caufield landed on his shoulder. May had full range of motion in the arm yesterday, but it was still sensitve to the touch. He said he hopes he will be ready to play Tuesday when Philadelphia visits.