The Washington Capitals reached the .500 mark tonight by embarrassing the Hartford Whalers, 8-4, in a wild game featured by Dennis Maruk's second straight hat trick and some misdirected shots.

Rick Smith, playing his first game on defense for Washington, collected his first goal on a second-period rebound of a Paul Mulvey shot. Earlier, he whistled a drive off the crossbar behind teammate Mike Palmateer, shocking himself more than anyone else.

"I couldn't believe it," said Smith, who grabbed his head in shock after the errant shot. "That really shook me up, that sucker. I'm glad I hooked it a little bit. But it was a crazy game."

At the other end, Hartford defenseman Al Sims trumped Smith by knocking the puck into the Whaler net. That goal, credited to Ryan Walter, came in the third period, and compounding the disgust of the crowd of 11,544 was the fact that it came on a power play created by the Whalers having too many men on the ice.

The fans were unhappy watching the Whalers' winless streak reach seven and they directed frequent boos at goalie John Garrett for permitting the eight Washington goals on only 23 shots. But if most of the folks were mad, a 37-person group from the Capitals Fan Club had a ball, chanting such things as "1-2-3-4-5-6-, we want seven," and seeing the club get seven, and then eight.

Road successes have been rare in Capital history and this second straight triumph on foreign ice matched the club record while evening the road mark at 2-2-5, Overall, the Capitals are 5-5-7, the latest they have ever achieved a .500 record.

"We had a long talk before the game, but not about Hartford," Coach Gary Green said. "We usually go over the other team, but this time I emphasized that if we won this one, it would put us at the .500 mark. And I told them to concentrate on playing our game, to think about ourselves rather than them.

We're in a pack in the middle and it's time to pull out. We've proved we're as good as a lot of other teams, with our seven ties, but we have to prove we're better. This certainly was a solid effort tonight."

It did not start out auspiciously, as Blaine Stoughton scored the first of his two goals for Hartford at the 40-second mark. Less than three minutes later, however, the Capitals were in front.

Wes Jarvis netted his first goal of the season after Alan Hangsleben, playing left wing in place of Bengt Gustafsson, sent a centering pass that struck Dennis Ververgaert's skate and went right to Jarvis.Then Maruk scored his first of the night in memorable fashion.

Palmateer, trying to clear the puck, banged it off the side boards at his left and it caromed behind the Whalers and into the Hartford zone. Whaler defender Mark Howe had a big head start but Maruk beat him to the puck, took one stride and drilled a 30-footer past Garrett.

"I told Pee Wee I didn't know anybody could skate that fast," Green said. "He beat Howe, who is a lot faster than an average defenseman. He's got his jets back and I couldn't be happier."

I hesitated at first, because I wanted to be sure the puck had cleared the zone," Maruk said. "I saw him (Howe) standing the other way, looking like he couldn't decide whether to turn around or to skate backward. I just let it go and it was close, but I got there first and I sort of leaned into him, so he couldn't take it away. I took one stride and shot."

Maruk, who went on to complete the first back-to-back hat tricks of his hockey career (he scored three goals in Pittsburgh Wednesday), was matching Robert Picard's 2-year-old club record of scoring at least one point in 10 straight games.Meanwhile, Palmateer was earning his third assist.

Mike Rogers and ex-Capital Tom Rowe lifted Hartford into a 3-2 lead before Washington scored four in a row to break the game open. Jean Pronovost, a standout all night, and Ververgaert connected 14 seconds apart to send the Capitals ahead to stay, and by the 8:12 mark of the second period. t

Washington's first power play gave Maruk the chance to make it 6-3, as he took Mike Gartner's pass, cut through the slot and lifted a high backhander into the net.

Sims' faux pas, after Walter's wide deflection of a Darren Veitch drive made it 7-4. Then Pronovost, grabbed from behind on a breakaway, maintained puck control during the delayed penalty and fed Maruk to complete the little guy's hat trick. It was Maruk's 15th goal.

"Everybody's helping each other," Maruk said. "Those guys set me up."