The game of hockey is played with only one puck. Although Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner are acquisitive types, they have learned to share possession for the good of the Washington Capitals.

Carpenter moved the NHL season goal-scoring standard for a U.S.-born player up two notches Thursday night with two third-period scores that gave him 44 for the season. More important to the Capitals, the goals lifted Washington to a come-from-behind, 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames.

Talk of a U.S. "record" of 50 or even 60 goals leaves Carpenter polite but uninterested.

"The only thing that means anything to me right now is to hold on to finish first in the Patrick Division," he said. "It would be a big thing to the people of Washington, something really special. You can score 50 goals and get lots of publicity, but if we win the Patrick Division, everyone will be recognized for it. It's a team thing and this team is a lot more than me and Mike.

"We get more chances than some of the other guys, because (Coach) Bryan (Murray) gives us more freedom offensively. But some nights we don't score and the other guys are always there to pick up the load.

"All we have to do is stay healthy and we should finish first. Then, if we play on top of our game, stay away from injuries and get some luck, you never know. You've got to have luck to win the Stanley Cup."

All Carpenter, Gartner and mates were concerned about today was rest, following their morning flight from Calgary. This has been a brutal week, compounded by Tuesday's All-Star Game and annoying travel arrangements, and Gartner has been further drained by a bout with flu.

"The All-Star Game was a lot of fun," Carpenter said. "It was a chance to meet a lot of different players in a new situation. It's one thing when you meet them on the ice, but it's different in person like that. They're all great guys when you're not fighting them for the puck.

"But we got tired. There are so many things going on along with the game that you don't get much sleep. We got tired there and playing the next two nights didn't help. But the win in Calgary should give us a big lift."

Despite their weariness, Carpenter and Gartner took 10 shots at Calgary goalie Don Edwards Thursday. Gartner also hit a post, but he needed the assist on Carpenter's game winner to extend his scoring streak to seven games.

Although it seems unthinkable to separate Carpenter and Gartner, playing on the same line has not always been easy. Murray often has broken them up in the past, although he now feels they have learned to share the puck sufficiently to make a partnership highly profitable.

"It took a couple of years of playing them together, breaking them up and trying to play them together," Murray said. "They weren't that good together the first 10 or 12 games this season, but they've really come on.

"Mike has great speed and he has to get the puck. Bobby didn't give it to him enough before. But Bobby has matured as a player. Not only is he a great goal scorer, but he's much more creative. Mike is improving; he's finishing better and he's getting the puck in better situations. A lot of that is because of Bobby.

"Bobby showed his strength in a lot of situations last night. I don't mean just the two goals he scored, but the way he came back and used his stick on his check. Of course, when we needed goals, I told him to go out and shoot more and try to score a couple. He's a good kid to obey orders. We were hoping he'd get 40, 41 goals. The way he's going, and maybe I shouldn't say this, he could get 55, 60 goals."

Carpenter, the NHL leader in first goals with 11, and Gartner each has seven game-winners. The two have produced some spectacular goals this season and, when they combined to score three late in the third period against the New York Islanders Jan. 27, the Capital Centre sound level approached rock-concert proportions.

"When you play with someone that long, you just know what he's going to do," said Carpenter, who scored in his first NHL game in 1981, with linemate Gartner assisting. "Teams are putting their best line against us, talent on talent, and me and Mike skate better than a lot of other players.

"A couple of years ago, there were a few times when we didn't score and we had a lot scored against us. A coach sees that and feels he has to change something. Also, we had checking lines thrown against us and it threw us off. Now, we have enough confidence that we're able to overcome it."

Gartner, the team scoring leader with 76 points, including 35 goals, noted competition for puck possession as something that had to be resolved before the two reached their level of success.

"Ever since Bobby came here, we realize they've wanted us to play together," Gartner said. "It hasn't worked out all that well before. Both of us were the type of player that needed the puck all the time.

"I was a winger who needed his centerman to give him the puck. He was a center who needed his wingers to feed him the puck. We did not have enough offensive creativity to give each other the puck an equal amount. Maybe now we have enough maturity and confidence to get over that hurdle. We don't care who scores. If a guy is in the open, he'll get the puck."

In the last three games, the pair has played with Bengt Gustafsson, Lou Franceschetti and Gaetan Duchesne at left wing. Although Murray tries to move Duchesne around to bolster other lines, he always seems to come back to the No. 1 unit.

"Gaetan has helped us both out," Gartner said. "He's an ideal winger to play with us. He's strong along the boards in our end zone and he gets the puck up to Bobby a lot. He's also the third man back and we can take chances and know he'll take care of the other end."


Winger Gary Sampson, who incurred strained knee ligaments in Winnipeg Wednesday, will resume skating Thursday and is expected to play Feb. 26 against Vancouver at Capital Centre . . . "You could call it running on empty," Rod Langway said of his third game in three nights. Still, he was one of the three stars, along with Carpenter . . . Pat Riggin will make his seventh straight start in goal against the Kings Saturday night.