If the Washington Capitals are to win the Patrick Division championship, they will have to do it without right wing Mike Gartner.

Gartner, the Capitals' fastest skater and perennial scoring leader, will undergo arthroscopic surgery this afternoon to repair torn cartilage in his left knee.

Although Gartner will miss the remainder of the regular season, he is hopeful he will be back in time for the opening of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which will begin April 9.

Gartner said he had been bothered by the knee for the past two weeks, and that the pain became worse during Wednesday's practice. Instead of practicing yesterday, he decided to visit Dr. Carl MacCartee, the team physician who will perform the surgery.

"It surprised me completely when I found out what was wrong," Gartner said. "It was bothering me, but it turned out to be more serious than I had thought. As long as I can be back for the playoffs, that's the big thing.

"The knee had been popping in and out of the socket, but I wasn't too concerned. Then on Wednesday, we were doing some fun drills at practice and it popped out and stayed out.

"I was doing a little skating and I bent down and I could feel it pop out. I could tell something wasn't quite right. I like to give injuries a couple of days and things usually work out, but not this time. I'll just rest up for the playoffs and watch the guys wrap up first place."

Gartner had played 235 consecutive games for the Capitals since sitting out the next-to-the-last game of the 1982-83 season in Detroit while suffering from the flu. He missed six games earlier that year after being struck in the eye by a puck. Overall, in seven seasons in Washington, he had missed 10 games.

Gartner shares second place on the Capitals' scoring list with Bengt Gustafsson at 75 points, two behind the leader, Dave Christian. His 35 goals match his lowest NHL total, in 1981-82.

Gartner is the Capitals' all-time leader in goals (282), assists (298), points (580) and games played (544). He has led the team in scoring three times, his rookie year (1979-80) and the past two seasons.

That something was wrong with Gartner was becoming apparent because of his lack of goal production and the inability to skate with his usual blinding speed. He had scored only three goals in the past 10 games, all in a March 15 victory in St. Louis.

The Capitals' first game without Gartner comes up tonight at Capital Centre against the New York Islanders. It is important not only because of the drive for first place, but because the Capitals have won three in a row against the Islanders and want to keep the resulting psychological edge for a possible playoff matchup with their nemeses.

Bob Gould, who scored the game winner in Sunday's 6-5 victory over Philadelphia and the clincher in Tuesday's 6-3 triumph over Boston, will fill in for Gartner on the line with Jorgen Pettersson and Alan Haworth, who returned Tuesday after a two-week layoff because of a broken bone near his wrist.

"If we play a bad game, it could give them the Islanders a shot in the arm," said Coach Bryan Murray. "I really think that is unlikely to happen. We did not play well the first two periods against Boston -- there was a lot too much individual play -- and I hope we've learned from that."

Murray said he has concocted no dirty tricks to try to confuse the Islanders for the future, although with New York a certain third-place finisher he expects some hanky-panky from his counterpart, Al Arbour.

"All we want to do is win," Murray said. "I'm fairly confident in what we're doing and the way we're playing. We have a lot of respect for the New York Islanders. They've been playing a bit inconsistently, maybe because they have nothing to gain right now and maybe because they're trying a few things."

"The New York Islanders, no matter what, are a great hockey team," said Christian. "They'll be tough. We always have great games with them, and there is no reason for this to be any different.

"We have six games left, and all the teams except the Islanders are involved in a playoff battle. But we can't afford to take them lightly. We may have to play them in the playoffs, and any game we don't take seriously could have a big effect, on the chance of finishing first and on the way they might look at a playoff series against us."

Christian does not want his hot hand to cool, either. After going without a goal for 11 straight games, he has six in the last five, for a season total of 39.

"I was frustrated through 11 games," Christian said. "I was getting two or three good chances a game, and after a while you start to wonder what you're doing differently. But it's always gone that way for me and the fact we won nine of those 11 games took a lot of pressure off me."

Craig Laughlin has been hot, too, with five goals and eight assists in the last six games. He has helped Bob Carpenter get going, and Carpenter has four goals and three assists in the last five. Greg Adams will be back on that line tonight, after sitting out Tuesday's game with a sore back while Lou Franceschetti filled in with an outstanding effort that earned him the No. 1 star.