Goalie Al Jensen, with substantial help from the pipes behind him, turned back the last nine Hartford shots last night and the Washington Capitals made Milan Novy's third-period deflection stand up for a 5-4 victory over the Hartford Whalers.

Mike Gartner scored twice to match last season's total of 35 goals and Bengt Gustafsson made three assists as the Capitals climbed into a second-place Patrick Division tie with the New York Islanders, who lost to the New York Rangers, 2-1.

There was unpleasant news for Capitals fans, too. Right wing Ken Houston rammed his right knee into the boards in the third period and will miss tonight's game at Boston (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30). The preliminary diagnosis was strained ligaments and 10 days of idleness, but confirmation must await reduction of the swelling.

"I went to hit a defenseman along the boards and he kind of ducked," Houston said. "I got a piece of him and my body was already against the boards, so as I turned my knee kind of snapped against the boards. It's pretty sore."

Hartford's Blaine Stoughton, who had scored his 40th goal earlier, twice struck the metal pipes of the goal in the third period, as the Whalers tried hard to earn a point or two despite having long ago lost all hope of playoff competition.

In the final minute, the Capitals kept the puck in the Hartford end, effectively preventing the Whalers from pulling goalie Mike Veisor for a sixth skater. Even defenseman Rod Langway maneuvered the puck behind the Hartford net, killing off precious seconds and earning the applause from many of the 8,980 fans.

"They worked hard, but we're a much better team," said Jensen, who earned his 20th victory.

The Whalers scored two goals 24 seconds apart to take a 2-0 lead after less than six minutes. Greg Adams deflected Risto Siltanen's shot past Jensen when Alan Haworth failed to clear the Washington zone. Then Stoughton converted an across-the-crease pass from Paul Lawless.

Outshooting the Whalers, 18-6, over the next 14 minutes, the Capitals tied the score on goals by Bob Carpenter and Gartner. Carpenter rebounded a power-play drive by Gustafsson for No. 27 with Whaler Chris Kotsopoulos off for slashing. Gartner's first score came with only 29 seconds left in the first period and followed superb passes by Gustafsson and Dennis Maruk.

Alan Haworth controlled a bouncing puck in front of the net to score his 22nd goal, then Gartner made it 4-2 with a 50-foot drive that appeared to strike either teammate Craig Laughlin or Whaler Russ Anderson, who were battling in front of Veisor.

"Some of the guys thought it hit me, but there was so much scrambling you never know," Laughlin said.

Before victory could be realized, Hartford's Doug Sulliman exploited Gustafsson's tripping penalty to close the gap to 4-3. Then Mark Johnson beat Jensen from 40 feet at 29 seconds of the third period, after Maruk mishandled a pass from Scott Stevens in the Washington end.

Novy's 16th goal, on a deflection of Langway's shot from the point, followed at 1:55, and Washington managed to hang on to the finish. Stoughton lined one off the crossbar midway through the period, then with 5 1/2 minutes remaining Jensen got his glove on a drive by Stoughton and the puck caromed off a post.

Although Jensen could laugh after the game was over, he was warned to protect the ragged pads he has worn over the last three seasons. "I think I'll sneak them out to the dump and burn them," said Coach Bryan Murray. "There have been two or three times a puck has hit his pads and dribbled through. We can afford new pads; he's got them but he won't wear them in a game. I suppose he's superstitious."

"The new pads feel good, but they're just not quite ready," Jensen said. It's not superstition; it's just a matter of confidence."