For three straight games, the Washington Capitals had played well and came up losers. Last night, they erupted against the Colorado Rockies and produced the most decisive victory in the club's five-year National Hockey League existence.

They overcame a tentative start and whipped the Rockies, 8-1, at Capital Centre. The Caps previously had scored eight goals, but never had beaten an opponent by more than five.

The snow and poor road conditions were blamed for the attendance of 5,458 -- smallest in the team's history. But the faithful were treated to Dennis Maruk's first hat trick as a Capital and such a laugher that Coach Danny Belisle spent much of the third quarter giving Maruk and rookie Ryan Walter extra shifts in hat-trick bids.

The Caps led, 7-1, after two periods, and after the fastest five goals in team history -- 8 minutes 35 seconds. The Caps had taken four games to score that many goals as recently as early November.

Now, this young club, with a boost from new goaltender Gary Inness, is a 500 team (7-7-3) over the last 17 games.

"What's this? Our 43rd game?" asked Belisle. "We've played 42 times three plus two tonight. That's 128 periods and the third period tonight was the first period I have been able to relax. I knew we had it won."

This game turned on two events: a gross misconduct penalty to Colorado's 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman Barry Beck for pulling Blair Stewart's hair in a first-period fight, and some excellent three-against-four penalty killing by the Caps less than two minutes later.

The Caps scored their first goal 13 seconds after the teams were at equal strength. Mark Lofthouse was out of the penalty box after serving defenseman Rick Green's hooking foul that sent him crashing into the goal post and to the locker room.

As he skated onside, Lofthouse controlled a loose puck and fed Maruk for his first goal, the Washington ceniter zinging a backhand shot past goalie Michel Plasse at 11:11.

With Beck, Colorado's best player out, the Rockies' defense was sorely hurt and the Caps exploited it, giving their faitherful an opportunity to see such events as:

Team captain Guy Charron, who was knocked unconscious in the 6-2 loss at Buffalo on Thursday night, keeping his 231-game iron man streak going. Last night was his 203d as a Cap. He started, scoring two points, getting Washington's seventh goal plus an assist.

Rookie Gary Rissling, in only his sixth NHL game, scoring his first goal.

A bench-clearing brawl in the second-period, resulting in 32 minutes of penalties to the Rockies and 20 to the Caps. The Rockies also received a game misconduct penalty because Ron Delorme, already penalized for one fight, came back on the ice for this one.

But the game was over by then, and the Beck fight with Stewart gave the Caps what Bolisle called "a big psychological lift" because, according to the coach, the players were down since they had played well in successive games against Chicago, Philadelphia and Buffalo, yet failed to gain a point.

"I hit him cleanly behind the net," said Stewart, describing a check he put on Beck. "Then we ran into each other at the blue line. He gave me a cheap shot and dropped his gloves."

Few in the NHL want to fight Beck because his reach makes it virtually impossible to land a punch. But Stewart did not back down. He dropped his gloves, too, and Beck landed three or four good punches to Stewart's head before the Cap winger managed a clinch.

"You've got to get in close," Stewart said. "Otherwise, he'd kill me. When the refs came in, he pulled my hair. He probably could make a wig out of the clump of my hair he had."

In the NHL, that's a no-no. Gross misconduct. Do not go to the penalty box, go to the locker room.

The Caps play Vancouver on Sunday afternoon at the Centre and Belisle is optimistic after his team's recent play. He called tonight's eightgoal outburst "something bound to happen once the dam broke.

"Maybe we'll start to score some goals now," he added. "We're doing the work for them and the effort is being rewarded. We were tight coming out, because we had worked so hard, yet lost three games in a row."

Charron said, "It gives you momentum. It's a positive note. You enjoy the days before the next game. It does a lot for you."

A doctor in Buffalo had told Charron to rest 24 hours after his second-period accident against the Sabres on Thursday. But X-rays and an examination here yesterday showed only a mid concussion at worst, and the doctors told him to see how he felt in pregame warmups.