The Washington Capitals rode the bus home tonight with many pleasant memories of their sixth straight exhibition victory, a 6-3 rout of the Hartford Whalers.

The moment that is likely to be remembered longest occurred midway through the first period and triggered a three-goal outburst in two minutes that took away the competitive aspect early.

Rookie defenseman Kevin Hatcher, less than a month removed from his 18th birthday, made a smooth move across the ice from right to left and suddenly launched a hard backhand shot from 35 feet. The puck slid past goalie Greg Millen for Hatcher's first goal in a Washington uniform.

"It surprised me," Hatcher said. "I just hoped I'd hit the net. I shoot the backhander in practice some, but I don't usually do it that well."

The goal was merely one aspect of Hatcher's play that impressed Coach Bryan Murray, who made it plain it will be an excruciating decision if Hatcher is to be returned to his junior team in North Bay, Ontario.

"He was standing up better and challenging the guys entering the zone," Murray said. "He's playing with confidence out there. His strength is still a little bit of a question mark, but I'm prejudiced to young people.

"I can promise you that if he stays here, by Christmas time he'll be 25 percent better. His off-ice program would be supervised and what's better than being with Scott Stevens and Rod Langway?

"In turn, we have to make sure he plays. If we keep him, we have to see that he contributes. I'd like to keep him two more weeks, buy some time and get a look at him in the regular season, when the intensity level becomes higher."

Hatcher, since he was drafted in June, has made it clear that he wants to stay in Washington.

"I have no idea what they'll do," Hatcher said. "I'm hoping I'll stay. Lately I've been playing well, but I made two bad mistakes tonight and cost us a goal. I won't be shocked if they send me back. This lineup is hard to crack. But I hope I can do it."

Hatcher's goal, at 12:18 of the first period, followed an early score by Bob Carpenter and gave Washington a 2-0 lead. Glen Currie converted Gaetan Duchesne's setup at 13:42 and 36 seconds later Mike Gartner used Carpenter's feed to make it 4-0.

Pat Riggin stopped all 13 shots that came his way in an outstanding performance. He made four saves in 10 seconds during a second-period Hartford power play, then was replaced by Bob Mason, who has earned a stay of execution because of Al Jensen's bruised knee but is still likely to be in Binghamton by Monday.

Mike McEwen and Duchesne scored the last two Washington goals, with Hartford making the result look closer than it was with two late scores.

Defenseman Timo Blomqvist stopped a puck with his gloved left hand and the pain and swelling forced him to leave the game.

"I took a slap shot in the fingers," he said, with the hand wrapped in an ice pack. "I didn't try to block it; I didn't see it in time. After that, I couldn't keep the stick in my hand."

The game was marred by 76 minutes in penalties, Hartford's Torrie Robertson drawing 28 in four separate incidents. It was Robertson who broke Capital Bryan Erickson's thumb on Wednesday.

For his seventh straight season in the Capitals organization, Lou Franceschetti will mark opening night in the minors. Franceschetti and Greg Adams were sent to Binghamton today, despite General Manager David Poile's statement Wednesday that he would make no cuts until after the final exhibition against Philadelphia in Hershey Friday.

"In making out the lineups for the last two games, we felt we wanted to look at some other players so we can make decisions," Poile said. "It's not a case that Louie did not perform, but that other players, particularly Jim McGeough and Dean Evason, really came on."