Mike Gartner sent the Capitals in front after 12 seconds last night and they kept the momentum going for a change to thrash the Hartford Whalers, 6-2, at Capital Centre. Al Jensen, in his first start since recall from Hershey, was the winning goaltender.

Washington's first victory in six home games lifted the Capitals into a fifth-place tie with Pittsburgh in the NHL's Patrick Division. They can climb to fourth by beating the New Jersey Devils tonight at the Meadowlands Arena.

Washington grabbed a 3-1 lead in the first 20 minutes with a 23-shot barrage at Hartford goalie Mike Veisor, facing the Capitals for the first time since 1974, when he was the loser in Washington's first-ever triumph, over Chicago. The 23 shots were one short of the club record for one period, set the last time the Whalers came to town.

Gartner, playing his 250th NHL game, sent in his first of two goals, coming around from behind the net and sliding it the puck into the far corner. This was only the third time in 13 games that Washington scored first and the first such occasion on which it won.

Jensen stopped 19 shots. It was six minutes before he faced any, the Capitals having tested Veisor seven times before a tough deflection popped out of Jensen's glove. He fell on the puck and two minutes later Bobby Carpenter's deflection of a Milan Novy shot made it 2-0, easing Jensen's job considerably.

"Maybe a tough one at the start helps," Jensen said. "I felt good tonight. I'm glad to be back and a lot happier to win."

It became 3-0 before the 10-minute mark as Bobby Gould beat Veisor from the slot on a setup from Scott Stevens.

Late in the period, ex-Capital Archie Henderson tipped in Greg Adams' pass for his third NHL goal and gave a little heart to Hartford Fan Clubbers in the crowd of 12,816.

Washington turned it into a rout with three goals in a 5-minute 4-second segment of the second period.

First, Dennis Maruk took Novy's headman pass and beat Veisor from the left-wing circle. Glen Currie, just up from Hershey for a five-game trial, made it 5-1 from the same area after the Whalers failed to clear the puck. Then Gartner netted his second goal off a Carpenter feed on a two-on-one break.

"We've had a lot of frustration from not winning in this building and it was nice to do it in that fashion," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "We could play the third period defensively and not run around trying to catch up."

The only score of that third period was by Blaine Stoughton, off a perfect pass from Risto Siltanen, the lone Hartford defenseman with solid NHL credentials. It came on a power play, with Timo Blomqvist in the box for questioning an icing call.

The Capitals played the last 56 minutes without defenseman Rod Langway and winger Ted Bulley, chased along with Hartford's Russ Anderson and Ray Neufeld.

The melee that resulted in 94 minutes in penalties began when Washington's Randy Holt was cross-checked by George Lyle near the penalty box. Lyle skated to the Hartford bench and, when Holt pursued him, Henderson stepped out and challenged Holt.

While Henderson and Holt were ushered to the box, other battles broke out between Langway and Neufeld, and Bulley and Anderson.

The absence of Langway gave considerable extra ice time to Stevens, and the rookie turned in his second straight superb performance.

Late in the game, Stevens dumped Henderson with an adroit check and Henderson responded with a slash that shattered his stick and returned him to the penalty box with only his second minor of a 64-minute seasonal total.

The Capitals played without Bengt Gustafsson, who must rest a bruised thigh until Wednesday. Maruk, struck in the ankle by a Hartford shot, is questionable for tonight's game in New Jersey.