The last time the Washington Capitals won away from home, Jimmy Carter was president. The Capitals finally won one for Ronald Reagan tonight, breezing to a 5-2 decision over the Hartford Whalers.

Washington's last road success came Jan. 12, in Denver, and was followed by 11 winless efforts on foreign ice. But tonight the Capitals jumped in front on Dennis Maruk's 41st goal after just 2:46, built a 4-0 advantage by the 24th minute and cruised home.

The Capitals' third straight victory gave them 60 points and enabled them to grab a share of 14th place in the NHL with the New York Rangers.

The defeat was a near death blow to the playoff hopes of the Whalers, 18th with 53 points, and the crowd of 10,692 spent much of the night sarcastically cheering routine saves by goalie John Garrett and hooting his teammates. It brought back memories to the Capitals, who not long ago were wallowing in a 13-game winless streak and enduring taunts in Capital Centre.

"We're not out of the woods yet, but we're clearing some trees," said Bob Kelly, who netted his 23rd goal for a season high in an 11-year NHL career. "When you're losing and the home crowd is booing, you lose confidence in yourself and your teammates. The only way to get your confidence back is to put a couple of wins together."

The Whalers collapsed in a manner familiar to observers of the Capitals' 13-game slide. Hartford was hitting hard and forechecking well until defenseman Gilles Lupien put an ill-aimed pass on Maruk's stick and the puck wound up in Hartford's net.

"That goal gave us extra momentum and you could see them go flat," said Mike Gartner, who netted his 39th goal and extended his goalscoring streak to seven games, one short of his 1979-80 club record. "During our losing streak we always seemed to give up a goal or two early and it took a lot out of us.

"Now things are falling into place. Winning makes the difference. All through the losing streak, we felt if we'd just win one game, we could turn it around and go the other way. It took a long time to come, but fortunately it didn't come too late."

During the 10 minutes following Maruk's goal, the Capitals outshot the Whalers, 11-1, and took a 2-0 lead when Kelly converted Maruk's pass from behind the Hartford goal line.

Jean Pronovost and Glen Currie scored within 3:17 of the start of the second period to make it 4-0. Currie's third goal in two nights came shorthanded, as he stole the puck from Dave Keon and beat Garrett on a breakaway. Moments earlier, Currie had stolen the puck from Mark Howe, only to lose control as he approached the net.

The Capitals eased up in the last 15 minutes of the second period and the Whalers halved the deficit on goals by Keon and Howe. More important, Howe jammed Bengt Gustafsson into the boards and the Swede once again dislocated his left shoulder, which had popped out Dec. 6 against Colorado.

"I had my arm on the spot where the board and the glass meet," Gustafsson said. "He pushed into me and the arm stayed there while i slid down. It was popped back in and, if I keep relaxing, there is no real pain. But if I try to get some power in it, it hurts."

If the Whalers expected Howe's goal, coming with 28 seconds left in the period, to give them momentum early in the third, they quickly were dissuaded. Fed by Tim Tookey, Gartner raced down the right wing and hit the far corner of the net at the 27-second mark to make it 5-2.

"I had a good chance to score when it was 4-0, but Garrett got his stick on it," Gartner said. "I played against him about 15 times in the WHA, so we know each other, and as I skated behind the net, he said, 'Sorry, Garts.' After I scored that goal in the third period, I skated by and said, 'sorry, Garrett.'"

The Capitals, who have set a club record by scoring in 14 straight periods, could afford to laugh tonight.They not only dominated the game but won the evening's only fistic encounter, as Howard Walker pounded former Capital Tom Rowe in the second period.

"He stuck his hand in my face," said Walker, a droll sort. "It doesn't feel too good when somebody rubs his glove in your nose."

Tonight, for a change, the Capitals were rubbing other noses into the ice.