The Washington Capitals' five-goal surge in the third period that overpowered the Hartford Whalers Sunday night, 5-4, was stunning to both hockey teams.

The Capitals do not play again until Friday, when the Montreal Canadiens visit Capital Centre. Before the rally from a 4-0 deficit Sunday, the Capitals were looking ahead to five days of replaying recent failures while watching the New York Islanders creep closer to second place in the Patrick Division.

Instead, the Capitals appear confident that they have found the winning formula again after a brief, uncharacteristic downswing.

"Not playing until Friday, we were looking at five days to think about our troubles," said Larry Murphy, who scored the winning goal with 1:15 remaining. "Now it should be a very positive thing. Hopefully, we can carry it on and put something together the rest of the season.

"With any team that hits the skids, it's a case of confidence. Everybody is second-guessing, and that leads to breakdowns. We really turned it on, and hopefully we can build on this. We're a top team in this league. There's no excuse for losing streaks."

Before they beat the Whalers, the Capitals had stumbled badly against the three poorest teams in the NHL, losing at Detroit and Toronto and needing a third-period rally to slip past New Jersey.

Bob Carpenter, a disappointment after his 53-goal season a year ago, scored twice in the frantic third-period comeback here after netting the tying goal against the Devils.

"I'm starting to feel really good," said Carpenter, who has 17 goals. "I'm getting some jump, getting in there and getting the puck.

"We'd been playing the center as the third man back, and it was tough getting in there. Now I have a little more freedom and more chances to get things going."

Coach Bryan Murray adjusted his lines in the third period, shifting Carpenter away from Mike Gartner and inserting him between Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould.

"Duchesne and Gould help a lot of guys play this game," Murray said. "They don't get much recognition, even from me, but they get people chances because of their hustle.

"I've been trying to hang tough with the lines, but Bobby and Mike have been struggling together, and I was just trying to stir things up."

Goaltender Al Jensen, twice removed in the third period, said the twisted left knee that forced him to yield to Bob Mason a second time was nothing to worry about.

"I'll be okay," Jensen said. "I hated to have to come out, but when you win like that, it doesn't matter. What a great comeback. It was unbelievable."

Murray gave the players a day off today and scheduled an optional practice Tuesday, only because some players do not feel comfortable after a layoff.

"I want the guys to stay away from the rink and just enjoy this," Murray said. "By Wednesday, we'll be ready to go back to it, and I think our problems of last week will be a thing of the past."

If the Capitals were flying high, the Whalers were in a state of shock. They reached the all-star break with a four-game losing streak, tied with Buffalo for the Adams Division's fourth and final playoff spot.

"I don't know what to say, except that it never should have happened," said Hartford defenseman Joel Quenneville. "We've lost some confidence in the past week. I mean, we had two points in the standings wrapped up, and all of a sudden they stormed us and it was all gone."

The Whalers, who resume play Thursday in Detroit, practiced today and will get a day off Tuesday only because no rink is available.

"This past week has been very disappointing," said Coach Jack Evans. "At the moment, I'm just devastated."