For Bengt Gustafsson, the Canada Cup was a disaster, despite Sweden's surprise appearance in the final. He suffered a pulled hamstring that twice has been aggravated in the regular season and that figures to keep him out of action until Christmas.

For Mike Gartner, on the other hand, the Canada Cup may well have been the springboard to the greatness that has somehow stayed a step away since he joined the Washington Capitals in 1979.

This is the sixth NHL season for Gartner, who turned 25 a week ago, and he enters tonight's game at New York against the Rangers with eight goals and six assists in 10 games. That puts him on a pace well ahead of his best NHL production -- 48 goals and 46 assists -- in 1980-81, before Bryan Murray brought the doctrine of defensive responsibility to Washington.

Gartner was generally regarded as a sacrificial lamb in the implementation of Murray's system. When Gartner made defense his No. 1 priority, giving up potential scoring chances in the process, his teammates could hardly object to similar demands.

Now that the Capitals have moved into the upper echelon of the NHL, Murray knows the team must raise its offensive production to challenge Edmonton for the No. 1 berth. As a result, Gartner has been given the go-ahead to put more emphasis on offense.

"Bryan has told me he wants me to be more creative offensively," Gartner said. "He's given me more freedom offensively and told me to work out there on developing more scoring chances. It's made a difference on the score sheet and to me personally, because I'm able to contribute more to the team.

"I think I'm coming into my prime. Just turning 25, I feel stronger physically and I think I'm maturing as a hockey player. It's taken me this long to get a feel for the league and what I can do personally."

Gartner's superb performance in the Canada Cup, as Canada upset the Soviets in the semifinal and beat Sweden for the championship, gave him increased confidence, just as it raised his stature in the hockey world.

"It really helped, particularly in boosting my self-confidence," he said. "After the '81 Canada Cup, when I was the last player cut, I had my worst season offensively (35 goals). Maybe it works both ways and this will be my best season.

"I've learned to handle the puck better, playing that caliber of competition and just watching the best players -- how they handle the puck and the moves they make. It's helped my puck control, but that's still an area where I can improve. I've worked extra hard moving the puck along the boards in our end."

Although he possesses a savage slap shot -- one that sent Pat Riggin sprawling backward in self-preservation during practice yesterday -- Gartner also has worked to improve his shooting. As a result, his eight goals have come on 42 shots, for 19 percent. That is a far higher success ratio than last season's 14 percent, 40 in 286.

"I'm definitely taking better shots," he said. "I'm not taking so many useless -- low percentage -- shots. In certain areas you have a much better chance to score than in others, and I'm taking more of those shots.

"At this rate, I'll probably have the most ever shots on net and, where I made 14 percent in the past, if I can get that up to 17, 18 or 19 with 300 shots, I should score a lot more."

Gartner has been teamed with Bob Carpenter much of the time and both have improved their production. That gives the lie to the theory of a couple of seasons back that they could not play well together because each needed the puck to be effective.

"What we're doing is we're both getting in the holes and contributing opportunities for each other," Gartner said. "We're both willing to make that sacrifice. Bobby has matured as a hockey player and I have, too."

Murray once spoke of Gartner in reserved tones, noting his skills while pointing out deficiencies that had to be overcome to reach stardom. Murray also kept Gartner out of key situations late in close games because of his problems handling the puck. Murray no longer has any reservations.

"Mike Gartner has matured a great deal in his overall play," Murray said. "He's handling the puck better and he's pushed himself in that area, doing puck-handling drills after practice.

"He's definitely getting a better selection of shots. He has his body in better position to shoot, like leaning into the defenseman. And I may be imagining it, but he seems a step quicker.

"In his overall development as a player, especially the maturity factor, he has come a great distance. He improved over the last couple of years, but there's no question the Canada Cup helped him."

Gartner played his 400th NHL game Saturday, when he scored twice in a 6-4 victory over New Jersey. He has missed only 10 games in his NHL career, seven in 1983 after he was struck in the eye by a puck and his career hung in the balance. Ever since, he has worn a visor, which he regards as a necessary hindrance.

"I still notice it's there," Gartner said. "It still fogs up and gets wet. I'd like to play without it, but I can't take that chance, knowing what happened and what could happen."