The Washington Capitals scored four goals tonight. Not once this season, however, have they won a game in which they scored fewer than five and this was no exception.

Blaine Stoughton's 20th goal of the season, after he stole the puck from Robert Picard in front of the Washington net with 7:41 remaining, carried the Hartford Whalers to a 5-4 victory.

The Whalers, playing without five injured regulars including Mark Howe, were struggling through a seven-game winless streak and this was a contest Washington had to win to get a playoff drive moving. Coach Gary Green was hard-pressed to explain why his team was so flat.

"We're looking for consistency and we're not getting it," Green said. "They know how to do it and they can do it when they want to do it. But it takes some intensity and drive. A system and being in the right place aren't much good without it.

"We let the Whalers lull us into playing their tempo of game. They didn't come out hitting and we were supposed to but didn't either. They just capitalized on our mistakes. And we made enough of them."

Three times the Capitals battled from behind, the last occasion to tie at 4-4 with 10:53 left. Mike Gartner broke away from Hartford's best defenseman, Gordie Roberts, and fired the puck between the legs of Hartford goalie John Garrett. It made Roberts so mad he broke his stick on the crossbar.

Picard then made a worse play at the other end. Trying to carry the puck out from behind his own net, he first lost it to Dave Keon. Picard got it back and immediately lost it again, to Stoughton. Stoughton beat Wayne Stephenson for his second goal of the game and left the Capitals feeling far more frustrated than Roberts had been.

Most frustrated of all was Guy Charron, who collected three assists and was voted the game's No. 3 star. Charron reinjured his right thigh during the pregame warmup, left during the first period to have the leg wrapped, was hobbling at the finish and wondered whether he would ever be healthy again.

"I'm so frustrated I can't believe it," Charron said. "I might have had three assists, but it wasn't the kind of night I could have had if I'd been right. That's the kind of game where the centerman can make the difference if he's 100 percent and it's not fair tothe others if I'm less than 100 percent."

The freezing Civic Center may have contributed to Charron's injury. It was so cold inside that when the announcer spouted. "When the Whalers get hot, you get chili," most folks were thinking of another chilly, rather than the bowls a fast-food chain distributes free anytime the Whalers score five goals in a game.

Hartford had a lot of help reaching the magic total tonight. Picard was a clearly identifiable culprit on the last three to remove any satisfaction from his second goal of the season, which created a 1-1 tie midway of the first period.

Bengt Gustafsson made some memorable moves around Rick Hodgson and Gordie Howe before setting up Leif Svensson for the score that gave Washington its only lead of the night.

After Al Sims took advantage of a slot vacated by Capitals to tie it, Jordy Douglas converted a breakaway off a poor Picard pass to lift Hartford in front, 3-2.

Ryan Walter made it 3-3 off Charron's perfect pass on a two-on-one break and the Capitals entered the third period with high hopes. But Picard was caught up ice and Michigan graduate Dave Debol, playing his first NHL game beat Stephenson from 45 feet out on the right wing. Gartner matched that before Stoughton hit the winner.

"Those two goals in the last period were tough for us," Green said. "We were determined to win it in the third period."

There was another noteworthy statistic. Keon, playing his 20th big league season and 1,393rd game, finally went over the 100-minute mark in penalties lifetime when he hooked Rick Green in the third period.

Jimmy Anderson, the Capitals' first coach, was a press-box visitor, but he departed after the first period. He saw the club's first 45 defeats and obviously felt no need to stick around for No. 279.