A piece of cartilage was surgically removed from Mike Gartner's left knee yesterday and afterward the veteran right wing said he intended to be ready for the Washington Capitals' first playoff game April 9.

"That's my goal, to get back there for the playoff opener," Gartner said. "I was told that I can skate in 10 days and I intend to be ready to go right after that."

The surgery, performed by Dr. Carl MacCartee, marked the first time Gartner has needed treatment on one of his knees.

"They were cutting in on virgin territory," Gartner said. "They took a bigger piece of cartilage than they thought, but otherwise the operation went just fine.

"My problem now is hobbling around on crutches. I've never used these silly things before. And I have to elevate the knee and keep ice on it until the swelling goes down in a couple of days."

For the first time in 235 games, Gartner was a spectator last night when the Capitals lost to the New York Islanders. He watched the game on television at his home in Mitchellville.

MacCartee's report characterized the problem as "a displaced medial cartilage, a portion of which was removed. No other damage was found."

Gartner discovered a problem with the knee last week, but did not consider it important until Wednesday's practice, when he realized it was more than just a twinge. He visited MacCartee Thursday and yesterday's surgery was set up.

The goal of returning in 12 days is not unrealistic. The Islanders' Ken Morrow underwent similar surgery during the 1980 playoffs, missed one game and returned to score a vital overtime goal in Los Angeles that gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five series. New York went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.

General Manager David Poile said the Capitals would not summon a replacement from Binghamton. The AHL Whalers are short-handed, with David Jensen out because of a strained ligament in his wrist and Gary Sampson absent with a bruised knee.

Only three Capitals -- Dave Christian, Bob Carpenter and Gaetan Duchesne -- have played in all 75 games.

Washington has survived injuries to some of its top players this season, going 6-2-1 without Rod Langway, 5-1-1 without Scott Stevens, 6-3-0 without Alan Haworth, 4-1-0 without Craig Laughlin and 3-2-0 without Bengt Gustafsson.