On a night when they were flatter than the Capital Centre ice surface, the Washington Capitals escaped with a 3-2 victory over the Hartford Whalers.

Bryan Erickson scored two goals and Bob Mason made some sensational saves during a late Hartford power play last night to give Washington its third straight victory.

A Capital Centre crowd of 13,314 frequently expressed displeasure with what it was seeing, but after beating Philadelphia and the New York Islanders earlier this week, the Capitals obviously were drained of emotion.

"The guys handled it well when the fans got antsy," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "Last year, some of them would have bitched and moaned about it. But this time the guys knew they had to play better. It's tough sometimes for young guys to play well in their own building."

Although the Whalers, last in the Adams Division, are not in the same class as the Capitals' recent victims, they are a grabby bunch capable of making a good team look bad.

"There's no doubt we had a letdown, but give Hartford credit," said Erickson, who broke a 2-2 tie at 3:19 of the third period. "They clutch and grab and try to slow it down. There were a lot of stoppages and a lot of the time it seemed slow and methodical, but it kept them in it to the end."

When Washington's Mike Gartner was penalized for hooking with 3:38 left, the Whalers swarmed around the Washington net. Mason, who was winning his sixth straight, stopped everything that came his way.

Two of his saves came on deflections, by Ray Neufeld and Torrie Robertson. After blocking Robertson's tip near the post at his left, Mason rolled over and, lying on the ice, used his stick shaft like a straight edge to foil Bob Crawford's attempted jam around the post on the opposite side.

Erickson, a right-hand shot playing the right side, scored both his goals from the off wing, as teammates set him up outside the left post. He produced the only goal of a dawdling first period following fine passes by Dave Christian, who earned his 200th NHL assist, and Gaetan Duchesne.

Penalties got the Capitals in trouble as the period ended. With 19 seconds left, Gartner punched Neufeld because "the guy hit me five seconds after I got rid of the puck" and was chased for roughing. Then, as the buzzer sounded, Rod Langway tangled with Robertson. While both were assessed fighting majors, Langway drew an extra two minutes for rapping Robertson on the helmet with his stick.

"He came at me and I just stood my ground," said Langway, serving only his third major in two years. "He should have gotten two more. I didn't know I got the extra two until Bryan got the sheet while we were in the room."

Faced with a potential two-man shortage for 1:41 at the start of the second period, the Washington trio of Doug Jarvis, Scott Stevens and Darren Veitch held Hartford without a shot for 1:04. That was when Sylvain Turgeon shot from the right wing circle and hit the far corner to tie the score.

"If we'd killed that off, I think it would have been a different game," Veitch said. "What can you do on a five-on-three? You just hope to get a bad bounce and knock it down the ice, and we managed to clear it a couple of times."

That score gave the Whalers some momentum. They took the lead at 12:34 when Ron Francis skated down the left wing, used backpedalling Peter Andersson as a screen and beat Mason from the left wing circle.

After five power play failures that induced unhappiness among some spectators, the Capitals were presented with a sixth when Joel Quenneville tripped Bob Carpenter. Murray called time to organize the extra-man play and merely heard more boos 15 seconds later when Carpenter tripped Mike Zuke to even the sides.

A third penalty in less than a minute, to Hartford's Risto Siltanen for holding Bengt Gustafsson, gave Washington a four-on-three edge and Veitch siddenly took charge. He lunged at the right point to block Dave Tippett's attempted clear, controlled the puck and moved in to beat goalie Greg Millen on the short side.

"He shot it off the boards and I didn't know how it would bounce, so I just wanted to get my hand on it," Veitch said. "I put it down and moved in. Everything seemed to open up for me and when Millen came out and challenged, I put it in the bottom right-hand corner."

Erickson's winner was set up by Christian, who first kept the puck in the Hartford zone, then relayed Gustafsson's pass to the wide-open shooter.

"David made a good play to keep it in their end," Erickson said. "Then he kicked it up to Gus and it pretty much gave us a three-on-one. When Gus passed it back to David, the defenseman had to commit to him and the pass left me open."

The goal was Erickson's 13th. He had 12 all last season.

With the victory, which gave them a 15-2-2 record since Nov. 25, the Capitals rebuilt their four-point Patrick Division lead over Philadelphia. The third-place Islanders remained eight back.