The Washington Capitals stormed back with a five-goal third period tonight to beat the Hartford Whalers, 5-4, and match the greatest comeback in their 12-year history.

Down, 4-0, with 20 minutes left, the Capitals pulled it out on Larry Murphy's backhander from the slot with 1:15 remaining. Craig Laughlin made the pass out of the right wing corner after Alan Haworth had drawn two defenders the other way. Then both of them embraced Murphy in a modified Heimlich maneuver.

"We worked the corner play," Laughlin said. "Howie came at me and both guys went to him. I kept going and I saw Murph get in behind the defenseman. I sent a backhander right to him and justice prevailed."

"When I got the puck, I was passing by the net and I didn't have much chance to shoot," Murphy said. "I got it away quick, it got through his pads and everybody had a chance to celebrate."

Bob Carpenter scored twice and Laughlin and Bengt Gustafsson once each as Washington pulled even by the 8:41 mark of the final period.

Carpenter had scored the tying goal Saturday, when Washington came back from a 4-2 deficit to beat New Jersey, 5-4.

Goaltender Bob Mason, twice replacing Al Jensen in the third period, stopped five Hartford shots to earn the victory in his first appearance with Washington this season. He did have one bad moment with 25 seconds left when Kevin Dineen cut in front and rapped the potential tying shot off the crossbar.

"He cut across the middle and he had the whole net," Mason said. "Maybe he rushed it a bit because I was trying to cover. It was a nice feeling when it hit and kept going."

The Whalers lost their fourth straight and fell into a fourth-place tie with Buffalo in the race for the last Adams Division playoff spot. Before tonight, Hartford had won all 19 games in which it took a lead into the third period.

There were no pep talks in the Washington dressing room after the players fell four goals behind. "It was absolutely quiet," Laughlin said. "It was like a morgue. We all knew it was 4-0 and we didn't want another finish like Detroit (7-0 last week). We just went out and took it to them."

Coach Bryan Murray's only words were to Mason and Jensen, telling them there would be a goalie change.

"I took Al out to shake the team up and I also wanted to give Bob some time," Murray said. Mason recently was called up because of Pete Peeters' injury.

Mason had little to do for the first nine minutes, as his teammates peppered Mike Liut at the other end.

Hartford's Joel Quenneville was chased for elbowing and Washington ended a string of 12 power play failures with Laughlin's goal at 1:34. Murphy fired from the right point with Greg Adams screening Liut and Laughlin behind him, having been pushed into the crease by David Babych.

"It hit my stick as it was going in and changed direction," Laughlin said.

The goal ended a 114-minute 24-second scoreless streak for the Capitals here. Liut had shut them out with 40 saves in April.

It became 4-2 at 4:57 when Carpenter deflected Scott Stevens' drive from the top of the left circle. Fifty-three seconds later, it was 4-3. Bengt Gustafsson moved in from the right wing corner and beat Liut on the short side as the goalie was distracted by a goal-mouth scuffle between Washington's Mike Gartner and Hartford's Risto Siltanen.

Whaler Dean Evason was in the penalty box when Carpenter tied it at 8:41, on a rebound of Gustafsson's shot from the right wing circle.

When Stevens was chased for cross-checking with 9:40 left in regulation time, Murray sent Jensen back to replace Mason, who had faced only two shots.

"I wanted to make sure the guys were aware of the importance of that penalty-killing situation," Murray said. "And I didn't want Bob to give up a goal that might cost us the game and hurt his confidence."

The Capitals skated off that penalty and were halfway through another against Peter Andersson when Jensen twisted his left knee with 5:59 left. That brought Mason in to win it, helped by a great play from Murphy to foil a Hartford breakaway, then Murphy's goal.

"I just wanted to go out there and do the best I could," Mason said.

Only once before had Washington rallied from four goals back in the third period. That was on Dec. 15, 1979, when they scored five times to beat the New York Rangers, 5-4, at Capital Centre.