If the Hartford Whalers defeat the Washington Capitals tonight at Capital Centre, they will clinch their first playoff berth since 1980.

Not one member of the current Hartford team participated in that first-season, three-game wipeout by Montreal. Incredibly, only center Ron Francis is still around from the team that Emile Francis inherited when he became general manager on May 2, 1983.

As a result of wholesale personnel shifts, Hartford has acquired the largest colony of former Capitals anywhere in the National Hockey League. Presumably, defenseman Mike McEwen, left wing Torrie Robertson and centers Doug Jarvis and Dean Evason would like nothing better than to wrap up that playoff spot with a good effort at Capital Centre.

None of the former Whalers will publicly express any animosity toward the Capitals, for good reason. In virtually every case, a trade to Hartford turned out to be a good career move for a player who was on the fringes in Washington.

The exception is McEwen, who left the Capitals for big money in Detroit after becoming a free agent last spring and lived to regret it. McEwen drifted from a horrible situation with the Red Wings to a bad one with the Rangers before he was dealt to Hartford on trade deadline day (after only 16 games) for winger Bob Crawford.

McEwen scored two goals in Saturday's 6-6 tie with Washington; he had only three in his 50 previous games.

Jarvis became a Whaler in a Dec. 6 swap for left wing Jorgen Pettersson. A fourth-line player seeing little ice time in Washington, Jarvis has become the man the Whalers depend on to win key faceoffs.

Tonight marks Jarvis' 880th consecutive game, only 34 away from Garry Unger's NHL iron-man record. Jarvis was nominated for the Masterton Trophy by both the Washington and Hartford chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, and if most Hartford players lack playoff experience, Jarvis can boast an abundance. He owns four Stanley Cup rings and has been on a playoff team in all 10 of his previous NHL seasons.

"It still hurts leaving Washington, but this was a team that wanted me and is willing to use me," Jarvis said. "I'm on a permanent line, I get a lot of checking chores, I kill penalties and take faceoffs -- most of the things I've done throughout my career."

The Whalers rank fourth in the NHL in penalty killing and the ex-Capitals deserve much of the credit. Jarvis teams with Dave Tippett on the No. 1 unit and, when they come off, Evason goes out with Stewart Gavin.

Evason shed a few tears a year ago when he was dealt to Hartford along with goalie Peter Sidorkiewicz for center David Jensen. But Evason is all smiles these days. In 52 games, he has 18 goals and 27 assists. Most important, 14 of his goals have come on the road.

"I got a break here early, when Ray Ferraro was hurt," Evason said. "I had expected to be here just a couple of weeks, but things went well and now they have the confidence to play me a lot, which makes anybody play a little better."

Asked about beating Washington, Evason said, "We're not trying to be a spoiler, but we'd rather be in second place than fourth."

Robertson has been a Whaler since Oct. 4, 1983, when Washington swapped him for winger Greg Adams. Robertson has amassed a club record of 352 penalty minutes this season, collecting 23 majors in his last 53 games.

Largely for his fistic ability, Robertson has been selected by the Hartford fans as the winner of the Favorite Whaler Award.

"It's a pretty big honor for me, especially when you have guys like Ronnie Francis and Kevin Dineen," Robertson said. "It wasn't expected. My parents and friends from B.C. British Columbia weren't even here to stuff the ballot box and I don't think the fans picked me for my 12 goals."

Pete Peeters will be the Washington goalie tonight, since Al Jensen has yielded 10 goals in two starts against the Whalers . . . The Capitals will put playoff tickets on sale during the first intermission tonight, with all 10 windows open . . . Home Team Sports will televise all Capitals home playoff games and WDCA-TV-20 will televise all Capitals away playoff games. If ESPN, which is televising up to 35 Stanley Cup playoff games, does a Capitals game, it will be blacked out on ESPN in the Baltimore-Washington area in favor of HTS or WDCA.