For the last month, Mike Gartner had been seen smiling only in television commercials. The Washington Capitals' winger had a smile on his face Saturday night, however, after his second hat trick of the season helped the Capitals thrash the New Jersey Devils, 9-3.

Over the 12 previous games, he had contributed a meager two goals and three assists, a total coincidentally matched by Dave Christian in Saturday's runaway.

That is small pickings for a man who had 50 goals and 102 points last season and never had produced fewer than 35 goals in six previous NHL season. Not only had he fallen from the NHL scoring leaders, he had fallen behind teammate Alan Haworth.

Also saddled with a double-figure minus rating, Gartner was beginning to question his performance. He stayed after practice for extra shooting, he talked with Coach Bryan Murray and he discussed the situation with linemates Bob Carpenter and Lou Franceschetti.

"I was getting concerned by so long a drought," Gartner said. "The past few years, there were times where I'd get one and go a few games, then get another. But this was a real drought.

"I wasn't panicking, but I felt I needed extra work. We talked a lot, Bobby and Louie and I, about things we had to do. We did a few things Friday night (in a 3-2 victory at New Jersey) and I think we've been coming for a few games.

"We peaked last night and hopefully things will continue. We want to get back to being a top line, where Bryan can depend on us in key situations.

"Bryan and I have had a number of talks over the last four weeks. He assured me he's happy with the way I'm playing and he expected me to get out of it. Bryan has kept confidence in me and I appreciate it."

Murray, who had repeatedly said that Gartner was maintaining his overall game despite the lack of scoring, expressed pleasure with the way the line played over the weekend.

"Mike and Bobby and Louie have to be pleased with their overall performance -- scoring, breakout, checking," Murray said. "They had a lot of jump and I kept coming back to them. It was nice to see them pick up, because they haven't been doing those things consistently. Mike had a lot of fire and he was going to the net. He could have had a couple more goals.

"I thought Mike had been pressing. He was working hard, but he was frustrated and he was playing like that at times. It's good to see him get out of the slump, if he was in one."

Gartner emphasized that he was pleased to see the scoring spread out among more players, with the top five on the club separated by only two points. He simply felt that he should be contributing more himself.

"Locker (Craig Laughlin), Howie (Haworth) and Greg Adams have been playing tremendously and they've been our top line for two months," Gartner said. "I think it's great that everybody is contributing right now. I'd like to get 50 goals again, but having the team win and everybody help out has been great."

The plus-minus situation has been puzzling. With many of Gartner's points coming on the power play, which does not count in the ratings, he has been hovering around minus 10 all season (currently minus nine). Meanwhile, Laughlin (plus 24) and Haworth (plus 23) have been padding those figures. A player receives a plus or minus for each equal-strength goal scored while he is on the ice.

"I've never been minus in my career," Gartner said. "I tried to look back at the goals where I was on the ice and I realized a lot of them were fluke things and I'd been doing my job covering the point man a lot of times when the puck would somehow get through on the other side.

"But with that, plus the puck not going in the net for me, I could be in trouble psychologically. You try not to worry about the plus-minus, but when things aren't going well, it's another factor to keep you guessing.

"Another thing, when you accumulate a lot of minuses, in the coach's mind it becomes a tough situation. He's not going to put the line out on the ice that much. So for the three of us to have a game like this -- well, it sure came at the right time."

Haworth, the victim of a third-period elbow by New Jersey's Bob Lorimer, spent the night in George Washington University Hospital with a concussion. He was released yesterday and told to avoid contact until Thursday, when the Capitals visit Philadelphia. He will miss Tuesday's home game against Detroit, but will skate with the team during practice sessions.

Murray ordered defenseman Rod Langway to stay away from yesterday's practice. Langway, who sat out the third period after Saturday's game turned into a runaway, has a slight groin pull. Kings 3, Sabres 2:

In Buffalo, Craig Redmond, Dean Kennedy and Phil Sykes scored in the second period to give Los Angeles all the goals it needed.

The Sabres got goals from Lindy Ruff and Mike Foligno but lost their second in a row and their first at home in the last six games. They hadn't scored in the 103 minutes 8 seconds before Ruff's goal. Nordiques 5, Rangers 4:

In New York, John Anderson's 200th NHL goal helped Quebec tie the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Adams Division.

Anderson scored on the first shot of the second period, beating John Vanbiesbrouck at 1:03 to give the Nordiques a 3-0 lead. J.F. Sauve got the next shot and scored at 2:19 to bring Glen Hanlon in to replace Vanbiesbrouck. Dave Shaw's goal at 12:49 enabled the Nordiques to take a 5-0 lead into the third period. They needed it.

Pierre Larouche, 30, of the Rangers' organization has demanded to be traded after scoring 20 goals in 27 games with Hershey of the AHL. A 13-year veteran of the NHL, he had 50 goals for the Canadiens in 1979-80. Red Wings 6, Maple Leafs 5:

Tom Fergus and Peter Ihnacak scored 22 seconds apart early in the last period to lift the Maple Leafs into a 5-5 tie, but Petr Klima won the game in Toronto by beating Don Edwards at 13:59 of the third period. He also had three assists.

The Red Wings' new coach, Brad Park, is 1-2-1 since taking over after Harry Neale was fired. The team is 2-13 recently. Oilers 6, Flames 3:

Marty McSorley scored on the Oilers' first shot in Edmonton and started Calgary on its way to its 10th straight loss, a club record. Wayne Gretzky scored once and set up two other goals, all in the first period. Edmonton (29-7-4) is the only team in the Smythe Division with a winning record. Jets 4, Canucks 0:

In Winnipeg, Daniel Bouchard got his 26th career NHL shutout. Vancouver lost the puck time and again, sabotaging Richard Brodeur, who made 26 saves. Black Hawks 6, North Stars 2:

In Chicago, Steve Larmer and Denis Savard scored third-period goals a minute apart to help the Black Hawks break a first-place tie with the St. Louis Blues in the Norris Division.

The Black Hawks have won five straight and nine of 10.