Mike Gartner scored two spectacular goals en route to his 11th career hat trick tonight as the Washington Capitals held off the St. Louis Blues in a frantic finish, 5-4.

The result maintained the status quo for both second-place teams: Washington one point behind Philadelphia in the Patrick Division and St. Louis two points in back of Chicago in the Norris Division. The Capitals did clinch a playoff berth for the fourth straight year, although there had been little doubt of that since November.

The Blues shocked Washington by scoring on the first shot of the game after just 22 seconds, Doug Wickenheiser getting the first of his two goals on a deflection off defenseman Scott Stevens.

Thereafter, the Capitals dominated play, outshooting St. Louis by 18-1 over the next 14 minutes and 34-24 for the game, but their first series sweep of the Blues did not come easily.

"We survived it and it was a big win," said Coach Bryan Murray. "It was a different kind of hockey game, that's for sure. Both teams played scrambly at times and we made some mistakes, but it counts two points and we need them."

Gartner's third goal belongs on any highlight film. With Washington leading, 4-3, and eight minutes remaining, he went one-on-one against defenseman Bruce Bell. The puck skipped off Bell's skate, then goaltender Greg Millen knocked it a few feet away.

Gartner took a backhand swipe at it and the puck hit the side of the net. Millen tried to control it, but it got away from him and back to Gartner, who lifted it over the goalie's left shoulder while kneeling on the ice.

The goal was Gartner's 35th and his seventh in three games against St. Louis. It was his second hat trick of the season against the Blues. He had another against New Jersey. Gartner's 11 hat tricks are a club record, topping Dennis Maruk's 10.

Not long after his third goal, Gartner raced through the St. Louis defense, only to be foiled when Millen went down and made a pad save. The Blues came right back and scored when Dave Barr converted Ron Flockhart's two-on-one setup.

Although the Blues had some good chances in the remaining 5:39, they could not fool Pete Peeters, whose career record against St. Louis is 12-1-4.

Dave Christian had some tough times early as Millen blocked three good bids to end what is now an 11-game drought before Gartner punched a rebound of Larry Murphy's shot between Millen's legs to create a 1-1 tie. Then Bengt Gustafsson made one of those amazing plays that drive opponents frantic.

Gustafsson held the puck along the goal line beyond the right post while Millen and two defenders challenged him. Rob Ramage fell before Gustafsson fed Gaetan Duchesne in front for an empty-net goal.

"I was at the blueline and I saw Gus hold the puck, hold the puck," Duchesne said. "I saw the goalie play him and I filled the hole. The goalie was out, the defenseman went down and I just put my stick on the ice and boom. He's unbelievable."

At that point the shots were 15-2. They were 18-5 when Kevin LaValle tied it on a St. Louis power play with 39 seconds left in the first period. It was the fourth goal yielded by Washington's penalty killers in 50 disadvantages.

Gartner had many of the 13,777 fans gasping when he ended the tie midway through the second period. He raced down the right wing, leaving Bell a spinning spectator, and put a hard shot off the far post and behind Millen.

The Blues pulled even for the last time with four minutes left in the period when Wickenheiser scored off a setup by Eddy Beers.

Twenty seconds later, the Capitals were ahead to stay. John Barrett outfought two Blues for the puck along the left-wing boards and shoved it to Craig Laughlin, who beat Millen from the left-wing circle for his 22nd goal.

The Capitals had a chance to put the game away when penalties to Ramage and Charlie Bourgeois gave them a two-man advantage for 82 seconds. For the 17th time in 19 such opportunities, Washington failed to score.

"You should be 50 percent, at least, in those situations, but we're just horrendous," Gartner said. "Bryan told us after that period that from now on he was going to decline the second penalty."