It was hats off to Chris Valentine yesterday at Capital Centre. The 20-year-old rookie, a 10th-round draft choice, scored four power-play goals to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-1 victory over the Hartford Whalers.

Valentine's first NHL hat trick, embellished by that fourth score, came just two days after Bobby Carpenter performed the same feat in a 9-1 rout of St. Louis. It also got the Capitals to within seven points of Pittsburgh in Washington's bid to gain the NHL playoffs for the first time in the history of the franchise. Edmonton beat Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh last night, 4-1.

This game was similar in another respect to the St. Louis rout. Hartford, as did the Blues, produced the first goal of the game and never scored again.

Washington had crept into a 2-1 lead by the end of the first period, then scored five times on a club-record 24 shots in the second session.

After 31 seconds, Valentine hardly resembled a hero. He lost the puck to Mark Howe as he tried to carry over the Washington blueline and it wound up in the net when Hartford's Don Nachbaur recorded his first goal since opening night.

"Howe outsmarted me," Valentine said. "Lately, every time I make a mistake, they score. That first goal could have been a big momentum thing and the coach (Bryan Murray) was really angry. But I guess it got me mad, too, the way things turned out."

On his next shift, with Hartford's Chris Kotsopoulos in the penalty box, Valentine blasted Whaler Russ Anderson into the boards, knocking the puck loose. Valentine then headed for the net, where he was in position to score on a rebound of a Darren Veitch shot.

Bobby Gould scored the winner at 2:55 on Washington's sixth shot. Gaetan Duchesne, skating down the slot, slid the puck off to his right to Gould, who sent it over the left shoulder of goalie Greg Millen.

Late in the first period, Hartford's Garry Howatt attacked Duchesne and received seven minutes in penalties to the Washington rookie's two. Early in the second period, 22 seconds before the start of the five-minute Washington power play, Mike Gartner converted a Dennis Maruk pass for a 3-1 lead.

Maruk set up Valentine in the slot for the only goal during Howatt's sentence, although the Capitals had seven shots during the five minutes. It was Valentine's 20th goal of the season, in only his 43rd game.

Hats sailed onto the ice when Valentine scored on a similar Maruk setup five minutes later, building the Capitals' margin to 5-1. Before the period ended, Gartner collected his second of the game and 30th of the season, on a shorthanded shot past the beleaguered Millen, and Valentine put in No. 4, the prettiest of all.

Valentine was behind the goal line when he took a Maruk pass. Maruk drew defenseman Blake Wesley away from the crease and Valentine was able to slip around the post at Millen's left and direct a backhander into the far corner for his 22nd goal. The assist, Maruk's fourth of the period, gave him 59 for the season, tying a team record, and 110 points.

That goal came during another major penalty on Hartford, as Kotsopoulos was given five minutes for ramming Maruk into the boards. A further minor on the Whalers, for delay, gave Washington two minutes with a two-man advantage, but the Capitals did not manage a shot until one Whaler had returned to the ice.

"The second and third goals came on a play we've been working on in practice," Valentine said. "Ryan sets a pick and goes for the net and it leaves the slot open for me."

Valentine had a good chance for a fifth goal with six minutes left, literally knocking Millen down with a shot the goalie was able to stop.

"I think I was pressing too much then," Valentine said. "And Millen was smiling as I went by. I know he was doing his darnedest not to let another one in."

Murray almost became involved in a postgame fight with Hartford's Rick Meagher, who tripped Glen Currie and then put his stick in Currie's face late in the game.

"I yelled, 'The game's over and that's your big hit of the game,' " Murray said. "He didn't like it much and we jawed a bit, but that's all."

Defenseman Paul MacKinnon was sent to Hershey yesterday . . . Winger Todd Bidner played with Washington on an emergency basis in place of Bengt Gustafsson, who has a cracked rib. Bidner then returned to Hershey for games last night and today. He is due back for tonight's 7 p.m. game against Edmonton, which must set some sort of endurance record . . . Kotsopoulos and Washington's Lee Norwood fought before the third period began. "He had rammed Dennis, so I told him to pick on someone his own size," Norwood said. "He did."