For 2 1/2 periods tonight, the Washington Capitals turned in a strong demonstration of the playoff hockey they hope to experience in April. During the other 10 minutes, they resembled the Keystone Kops and that was enough to give thee New York Rangers a 6-4 victory.

Don Maloney, a 22-year-old left wing, recorded the fastest hat trick in the Rangers' 54-plus seasons, scoring three times in 2 1/2 minutes to give New York a 5-2 lead. The last two goals came shorthanded on the same penalty, the second time in the Capitals' seven years they had been so humiliated.

Washington battled back with third-period goals by Dennis Ververgaert and Bob Kelly, but an empty-net score by Mike Allison with 43 seconds left wrapped it up and enabled the Rangers to break out of a 12th-place tie with the Capitals and Quebec.

Their winless streak now at seven, the Capitals find themselves Sunday in a 7 p.m. Capital Centre showdown for 13th place with the streaking Nordiques, who have won five of seven games on their current road trip.

Outshooting the Rangers by 11-4 in the first period, the Capitals gained a 1-0 lead on Glen Currie's first goal of the season, during a major penalty against Allison for high-sticking Jim McTaggart.

McTaggart was absent the last five minutes of the first period and the first 15 of the second while eight stitches partially stemmed the flow of blood from his mouth. Pat Ribble did not dress because of a sore left elbow that will be x-rayed Sunday and swing man Alan Hangsleben was idle in the penalty box for 17 minutes following a fight with Chris Kotsopoulos. That left Washington with four defensemen and they gradually became run down.

Defender Rick Smith swung and missed on a setup by Mike Gartner, permitting the puck to slide into Washington ice, where Ron Greschner connected from the right point at 10:16 of the second period. Goalie Mike Palmateer was caught moving to his right as the puck deflected off Ryan Walter and passed him on the left.

Fifty-two seconds later the Rangers were ahead. Washington defenseman Howard Walker, carrying the puck at center ice in the direction of his own goal, fell and Ranger Lance Nethery picked it up, to deke Palmateer into bewilderment on the ensuing breakaway.

"I just caught a rut in the ice," Walker said. "It was a simple play, throwing it around the boards, but my ankle gave out and I went down to one knee and it got away."

Smith temporarily slowed the Ranger surge with an unassisted score as Ranger goalie Steve Baker gloved a deflected shot, then lost control as he tried to skate into the slot and unload the puck.

Maloney, who missed the Rangers' first 16 games with mononucleosis, took over from there. At 16:41, with Ververgaert off for interference against Maloney, Palmateer went down to block a Greschner shot and Maloney lifted the rebound over him.

When Maloney's brother, Dave, was sent off for holding, the Capitals' power play backfired twice Maloney connecting at 18:37 and again at 19:11.

On the first one, Kelly fell as, like Walker, he carried the puck in the direction of his own net. He tried to control it while on his knees, but Ranger Eddie Johnstone took over and, as Palmateer lunged toward him, fed Maloney in front of the unguarded net.

"I pushed the puck ahead and I was going to reach for it and make a quick circle," said Kelly, who was playing his 800th NHL game. "I turned a corner and fell down. Then I tried to swim on my belly and hit it, but that didn't work either.The ice was bad. Even on the power play, we couldn't get the puck on the boards. It just stayed on edge. That's no excuse, though. They played on it, too."

The Capitals were still in a state of shock when Palmateer went down to block a shot by Tom Laidlaw, the rebound kicked out to Maloney and he once again fired it over Palmateer.

"I was the most surprised guy in the place," Maloney said. "I didn't know where the puck came from. If i'd missed that one, I think I would have cried."

He didn't miss and most of the tears were coming from the other bench.