THE CAPITALS finished checks, dived to block shots and clamped down defensively when they got the lead. Against the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals improved their play and erased lingering murmurs that they were underachievers.

Alexander Semin scored twice, Troy Brouwer tallied the tiebreaking goal midway through the second period, and Washington halted the visiting Rangers' five-game winning streak with a 4-1 victory last night.

"All through the lineup, guys were just playing tough," Brouwer said. "Not letting guys get free passes, even in front of our net, playing hard on the cycle, stuff like that. When you play tough, when you play hard, it makes it tough for the other team to create anything."

That was the script that gave Washington the lead for good, when Brouwer atoned for misfiring at an empty net late in the first period on a man advantage.

With the game tied 1-1, Brouwer got tangled with Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in front of the New York net. Brouwer not only screened goalie Martin Biron but redirected John Carlson's drive from the left point for his 10th goal of the season at 10:24.

"I'm put out on the power play to score goals, do a good job in front of the net," Brouwer said of his earlier miss. "For me, that's an unacceptable play. It's got to be in the back of the net."

Marcus Johansson also scored for the Capitals, who snapped a two-game skid. Alex Ovechkin had two assists.

Brandon Dubinsky scored for the Rangers, 7-3 in their last 10 games. Marian Gaborik, tied for the NHL lead with 22 goals, had his run of five straight games with a goal stopped.

The Rangers dropped one point behind Boston in the Eastern Conference race.

"Turnovers, not against their third or fourth lines, but against their top line - it killed us," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "That's what's frustrating. I thought we beat ourselves a little bit there in those situations. They're an opportunistic team [and] we didn't defend."

Turnovers led to Semin's two goals, which turned a one-goal Washington lead into a comfortable margin.

"He's a sniper and he can score, but he played the right way," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "He was back-checking and he created opportunities because of defense. That whole line, that's what we needed from them."

In other games:

* At Newark, N.J., Petr Sykora's two goals led the New Jersey Devils to a 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Martin Brodeur made 22 saves and assisted on Sykora's first goal.

* At Nashville, Colin Wilson scored the only goal in a shootout and the Predators topped the Minnesota Wild, 2-1.

* At Chicago, Jonathan Quick stopped 38 shots and Trent Hunter and Jaret Stoll scored the goals in the Los Angeles Kings' 2-0 win over the Blackhawks.

* At Glendale, Ariz., defenseman Dennis Seidenberg scored 58 seconds into overtime to give the Boston Bruins a 2-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes.

Noteworthy * 

Dallas activated goaltender Kari Lehtonen from injured reserve after he missed 12 games with a lower-body injury while defenseman Stephane Robidas, who has missed three games with a lower-body injury, went on IR, retroactive to Dec. 19.