They commemorated Gordie Howe's last visit to Capital Centre by placing his number on the scoreboard yesterday. Howe was unappreciative, however, because that famous "9" graced the Washington Capitals' half of the board.

In Howe's 2,400th major-league game, the Capitals for the first time were scoring nine goals at home. Bob Sirois, Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson each scored twice as Washington thrashed Howe's Hartford Whalers, 9-5.

Robert Picard, with a goal and four assists, set team record for points in a game by a defenseman. But probably the most pleasant figure was the Capitals' four power-play goals, tying the club mark. The extra-man maneuver has been a sore statistic all season, but with Gartner at the right point it was most effective this time.

:"We had time to work on it for a change and we worked it hard, with penalty-killers applying a lot or pressure," said Coach Gary Green. " "We were getting good shots from the point, on net, and we were controlling play and setting up pretty well."

"I played the point in junior and it's a little different," said Gartner, who now has 29 goals. "I feel a little bit shaky, particularly in the defensive zone bringing the puck out. It's a different position having guys coming at you instead of going at guys."

Ex-Capital Tom Rowe, with four minors and a major, led a parade to the penalty box that eventually reached 25 violations. As a result the game's first five goals were scored with less than a full quota of players on the ice. f

Washington scored four of them, three with an extra man. The game's first goal, however, came shorthanded by Sirois, the first such score against Hartford this season.

It was Bobby Hull who goofed, his soft pass in the Whaler's zone being gobbled up by Ryan Walter, who fed Sirois in front.

"That kind of goal gives the club a big lift at the start," Sirois said. "We had been giving them a hard time on the power play, they had a hard time getting out of their end. So when Ryan got the puck, I broke for the net."

Sirois made it 2-0 with an extra-man deflection of a drive by Gartner. He had some good opportunities to collect his first NHL hat trick but for the second straight game settled for a pair.

"The moon will have to be right in line with Venus and Mars for that to happen," Sirois said. "The last two days it's been close, but not close enough."

With Hartford short two men and Washington one, Picard made a marvelous backhand pass that left Gustafsson the sole occupant of the right half of the Hartford zone. The Swede took advantage of the breakaway for Washington's third goal in 3 minutes 20 seconds.

After Bernie Johnson put Hartford on the board, the Capitals netted three more in 1 minute 55 seconds to wrap it up. Picard hit a 55-footer, Antero Lehtonen scored off a beautiful set-up by Dennis Maruk and Alan Hangsleben converted Gustafsson's pass into the slot.

Hengsleben's goal eventually became the winner, his first game-decider since the Capitals obtained him for Rowe on Jan. 17. Still, Hangsleben found it to be a strange afternoon.

"It made it a lot easier scoring that goal," Hangsleben said. "You try to play them like anybody else, but the hard body contact just isn't there. You don't take them out like you should take them out. They're not players, they're brothers."

Hartford scored some strange goals, although it never came close to catching up. There was suspicion that some of the crazy bounces were the result of poor ice, since a compressor broke down and icemaking proved difficult.

"They got some weird bloody goals," Green said. "I'm not concerned with the way we played with the lead, but I was concerned about those crazy bounces out there."

Wayne Stephenson yielded the first four Hartford goals, then was replaced by Rollie Boutin with 8:08 remaining. Stephenson suffered a strained back muscle, but he is expected to be ready when the New York Islander visit Capital Centre today at 1:30.

Neither Howe nor Hull managed a shot on goal and Howe was booed by the 10,521 fans when he slashed Rolf Edberg in the second period. A critic of this performance would recommend immediate retirement for both Howe and Hull, but Howe explained that there were extenuating circumstances.

"Bobby played very well his first game with us Thursday, but he'll need a few games to get going," Howe said. "Remember, he never had the advantage of training camp this year. As for me, I wanted to score 15 goals this year and be a plus player. I'm pretty close to both goals. If they ask me, I might come back next year."

The odds are astronomical that the Whalers will permit Howe, who scored most of his 14 goals last fall, to retire gracefully. They might need him, however. It is hard to believe that the Whalers are six points ahead of Washington. A few more games like this one and they won't be.

"We had a lot of no-shows on a big night." said Hartford Coach Don Blackburn. "and we put ourselves in a hole with stupid penalties right off the bat."

Green was happy to get the two points, commenting that "they were a much-needed two points and we got them. It wasn't the most disciplined game from a defensive standpoint . . ."

The conversation broke up in laughter. But only the Capitals were laughing.