If Mike Gartner -- or anyone else -- could score when the Washington Capitals have a two-man advantage, it would make life a lot easier for Coach Bryan Murray.

As it was, Gartner brought a smile to Murray's creased face Saturday night with a spectacular hat trick that helped the Capitals defeat the St. Louis Blues, 5-4, and stay one point behind first-place Philadelphia in the Patrick Division race. The Flyers extended their lead to three points tonight with a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils, but the Capitals have a chance to cut it to one again when they play the Penguins in Pittsburgh Monday night.

Gartner had not scored for four games, and only once this season had he gone five without a goal. He made certain that would not be repeated when he scored on a first-period rebound, then added another goal in startling fashion in the second period as he raced down the right wing and sent a blazing shot off the far post and behind goalie Greg Millen.

The piece de resistance was saved for the final period. After flipping a backhander off the side of the net, Gartner managed to regain possession and complete a club-record 11th hat trick while on his knees beyond the left post.

"That last goal was a quality effort," Murray said. "He fought the defenseman, he fought the goaltender and he took three swings before he finally got it in.

"Mike has been struggling and pressing a bit. He's been trying to do too much individually, but in St. Louis he was skating and shooting, and that's his game. The one thing we had talked about was shooting the puck, and he listened, because he put seven on net."

The Capitals have only three hat tricks this season, and Gartner has all three. Two are against St. Louis, a team he has exploited for seven goals in three games, all won by Washington.

Of that sensational third goal, the Blues' Ron Flockhart said, "Gartner is one of those guys who never gives up. Bruce Bell played it perfectly and Millsie Millen , too. The guy scored anyway."

"It was nice to score a few," Gartner said. "I'd been coming up a bit short the last few games. That was a big game for both teams, and we showed some character winning it. It's too bad Philly pulled their game out 6-5 in overtime at Toronto Saturday night , but we're winning, and that's all we can do."

The Capitals admit they need to do more when they have that two-man advantage, though. Leading, 4-3, late in the second period, they were two up for 82 seconds without putting a decent shot on goal. In 19 such opportunities this season, they have converted two.

"We just haven't done anything when we're two men up," Murray said. "It seems like we slow down, we're passive entering the zone, and the first point shot we get, we take it and wind up turning the puck over.

"We don't spend much time on it in practice, because it doesn't happen often, but now we're going to have to spend some quality time on it. It could mean the difference between winning and losing a key game."

The five-on-three is important for two reasons. Obviously, it provides an easy scoring chance. But it can turn things around psychologically, because a team that fights off such a disadvantage generally gets a big emotional lift.

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

"We'll probably spend more time on it in practice. Usually we just go over it on the board, but I think we'll walk through it now. We should be able to work set plays five on three, and we should get good chances, but we haven't executed at all."