Guy Charron scored two goals early and Antero Lehtonen scored two goals late tonight as the Washington Capitals gave those playoff hopes a shot of adrenalin with a 6-3 victory over the Hartford Whalers.

This was a game Washington desperately needed to win, against one of several mediocre clubs it must leapfrog to finish in the NHL's top 16. For two periods however, it was 2-2 and anybody's game. Then, in the final period, the Capitals made it their game, sending most of the 7,627 fans home mad.

Goals by Wes Jervis and Lehtonen, 19 seconds apart, provided the break-through for Washington. Lehtonen then hit again with 4:48 remaining to ice it. On each of those three goals, assists by defenseman Rick Green were important factors.

Green was clogging the middle, attracting all of the defensive attention, when Leif Svensson passed out of the corner to the unguarded Jarvis for the go-ahead score. It was No. 6 for the youngster, who has made the most of his limited ice time.

Nineteen seconds later, Mark Lofthouse drilled a shot off the crossbar. The rebound flew out to Lehtonen and the guy his teammates call "The Cannon" quickly blew the puck by goalie John Garrett.

Lehtonen, who had hit a post himself with Washington trailing, 2-1, boosted the Capitals' margin to 5-2 with a drive from the left-wing circle that dropped into the net off Garrett's glove. While the fans raised their voices in disgust, the Finn shrugged his shoulders and accepted both the change of his luck and his fifth NHL goal.

Charron boosted his Capital scoring total to 250 points -- no other Washington player has reached 200 -- with power-play goals in the first and second periods.

The first, at 53 seconds, was a repeat of an unusual Washington pregame drill, with players pursuing rebounds of blue-line shots. In this case, Charron pounced on a rebound of a drive by point-man Geingt Gustafsson.

Hartford went ahead on Mike Rogers' conversion of a rebound off the lively boards behind the Washington net and Blaine Stoughton's 22nd goal, a breakaway. But Nick Fotiu, the Whalers' resident goon, was finally whistled for charging Lofthouse and Charron tied it on another rebound, this time off a closein shot by Ryan Walter.

Earlier, Fotiu had gotten away with some ridiculous fouls, including a butt end that carried away Jarvis' helmet. Even more noticeable was the abrasive performance of Hartford's 51-year-old Gordie Howe, who looked more like Godfather than grandfather while using his stick and elbows without remonstrance from referee Wally Harris.

Late in the first period, the fluridden Howe was dumped by the Capitals' Swedish rookie, Bengi Gustafsson. Obviously annoyed, Howe rose and aimed an elbow at Gustafsson's head. His reflexes somewhat diminished by age, Howe landed only a glancing blow, then skated to the penalty box to serve the "penalty." Except that Harris had not called it and was obliged to skate over and tell Howe to come back out.

"That's a first," Howe said. "The whistle blew as I hit him and the guy opened the door and I said, "That's it."

Later, Howe speared Paul Mulvey in the stomach and punched Svensson in the back of the helmet. He also had words with Walter after the Washington captain checked him.

The absence of penalty calls on both sides helped Hartford, which has the worst power play in the NHL. But for a team that has won only one of its last 14 games, it was not sufficient help.

The Capitals play in Minnesota Saturday night, if they can escape the snow here to catch a morning flight . . . Defenseman Brent Tremblay, in his first shift since returning from Hershey, made a superb play to turn back a two-on-one break . . . Greg Polis, Bob Sirois and Pete Scamurra played for Hershey tonight in Rochester.