When Mike Gartner scored his 46th goal after just 26 seconds last night, the Capital Centre crowd of 12,201 prepared to cheer the Washington Capitals to their first season series sweep, as well as a giant step forward in the struggle for playoff status.

Like so many expectations concerning the Capitals, this one was not fulfilled. The Hartford Whalers, with nothing to worry about except vacation plans, came back to win, 5-3, and once again Washington is hanging on the ropes.

Blain Stoughton scored two goals and John Garrett stopped 32 Washington shots as Hartford remained mathematically alive, if nothing else. But this game was more a matter of Whaler pride than necessity.

"Everybody else was so loose, we were joking around all afternoon," said ex-Capital Tom Rowe, who scored into an empty net with one second left. "We've been tight losing at home to teams we should beat like Edmonton and the Rangers.

"But tonight we went out there with a great attitude. We wanted to play the best we could and everything sort of went our way. I watched the Capitals on TV last night from Detroit and you can tell they're tight. They want to get in the playoffs so bad. I wish them all the luck in the world."

The Capitals may need that luck. They still hold 15th place, one point ahead of Edmonton and Toronto, but the upcoming schedule is difficult, including two games with the New York Islanders and one in Boston.

"I'm not so concerned with who we play now, but when we have to play them," said Washington Coach Gary Green. "We'll stay away from the rink tomorrrow and use the opportunity for energy to be restored."

"Our guys were trying out there. I can't fault the effort. You could see the teeth grinding. But five games in seven nights, I don't care who you are or what team you're against, it's a tough stretch.

"It was the same against the Leafs a couple of weeks ago, fighting to the end but running out of petrol. They were running on personal determination but they were running out of fuel. We knew we were in for a tough 60 minutes tonight. Hartford was sitting here watching us on TV last night, they were rested and loose."

Gartner's goal extended his club-record point-scoring streak to 15 games, third best in the NHL this year. It also marked the high point for the Capitals as Harford, helped by two penalties against Bob Kelly, took a 3-1 lead before the end of a first period in which it outshot the Capitals, 16-9.

The Whalers tied it at 2:14 when Warren Miller skated around Washington defenseman Rick Smith and sent a shot at goalie Gary Inness. The puck lay in front of Inness, the Capitals failed to clear it and Dave Keon, who celebrated his 41st birthday Sunday, reached out and poked it over the fallen goalie.

Kelly was off for hooking when Stroughton put Hartford ahead to stay. He was left unguarded just outside the crease and converted Mark Howe's pass from the right-wing circle.

Kelly was back in the box, for tripping, when Hartford raised its lead to 3-1. Inness skated behind the net to handle the puck, suddenly found himself surrounded by Whalers and tried to retreat, Rowe poked the puck to Mike Fidler, who scored while the Capital defense slumbered.

"I couldn't get to the puck," Inness said. "I didn't know Rowe was there and when I saw him I just tried to get back to the far post. Fidler came around and I think he was still behind when he shot. But give Rowe credit. He must have got a good jump on the puck coming in."

Washington pulled within 3-2 on a second-period goal by Denis Ververgaert. Pat Ribble made a excellent rush, pursued the puck behind the net after Garrett blocked his shot and set up Ververgaert in the slot. Dennis Maruk also assisted and set a club record of 91 points in one season. Maruk established the old mark of 90, which Gartner tied in the first period, two years ago.

For the next 24 minutes, the Capitals had some good chances to tie. A number of shots rolled inches wide of the posts and Ryan Walter hit a post, but Hartford scored the key goal, Stoughton converting a great pass from Pat Boutette for a 4-2 lead with 4:50 left.

Tim Tookey gave Washington fans some hope by skating around the Hartford net and backhanding the puck past Garrett with 2:22 on the clock. It was Tookey's fifth goal in the last five games.

There was no followup, however, and the Capitals did not put a shot on goal during the last 57 seconds after pulling Inness for a sixth forward.

The Capitals' home record dipped below .500, at 15-16-7. Washington has won only two of its 11 in Capital Centre. For a final distress signal, Gartner played the last two periods under restraint, after suffering a charley-horse.

"This is a setback, I guess," Green said, "but we won't let it stand in our way."

Forget the Mayday. Just send an SOS.

Sabres 5, Rockies 3: Buffalo's Gil Perreault scored twice in 30 seconds midway through the third period at Denver as the Norris Division champions moved into fourth place in the overall standings with 95 points.

Tony McKegney gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead and Lindy Ruff made it 2-1 36 seconds into the period. Ric Seiling put Buffalo ahead, 3-1, at 1:56 of the third period. Ed Cooper pulled the Rockies within a goal before Perreault scored.