The Washington Capitals and the 16,126 fans who turned up for their home opener enjoyed a lot of laughs last night. They also celebrated a 6-4 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Mike Gartner recorded the 12th hat trick of his National Hockey League career and Craig Laughlin scored two goals. There was enough confusion over who earned the hat to leave both players giggling and offering one-liners afterward.

It was the Capitals' first success in a home opener since 1981, the only other time they won their second game of the season. Tonight they visit Buffalo in a bid to top the .500 mark after three games for the first time.

Rick Vaive scored twice for Chicago, which lost its second free-scoring game in a row. The Blackhawks also lost defenseman Gary Nylund in the first period with a hyperextended right elbow and, if they had anything to be happy about, it was Nylund's negative X-rays.

"I hit one of their guys coming around the net and my wrist and elbow got jammed," said Nylund, wearing a sling. "I thought I broke it. I almost passed out on the bench, it hurt so much."

At least Nylund was spared the sight of what followed his departure. From a 2-2 tie after 18 minutes, the Capitals scored four straight goals. To their credit, the Blackhawks regrouped and only some superb saves by Clint Malarchuk in the last 15 minutes kept them from closing within a goal.

"We're giving up too much, but we're trying some new things defensively and that may be why we're playing a little loose," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "At least we were more physical tonight than in Boston {a 4-3 season-opening loss Thursday}.

"We've given up a couple goals too many and we've made a few mistakes, but the guys are working hard and the big thing is that we won the hockey game."

Neither Malarchuk nor 5-foot-5 Chicago goalie Darren Pang was able to stop the first shot that came his way. In Pang's case, it wasn't really a shot. A rebound off the rear boards eluded him and caromed into the open net off the skate of Gartner, whose stick was in the grasp of Chicago's Doug Wilson.

"Dale {Hunter} shot it in and it came off the boards hard and got by the goalie," Gartner said. "It hit the tail of my skate and went right in. I wasn't sure he {referee Dan Marouelli} was going to allow it."

After Vaive converted Troy Murray's pass from behind the goal line on Chicago's first shot, Gartner struck again. Larry Murphy sent the puck down the ice and it slid through Chicago defender Dave Manson to Gartner, who put the puck between Pang's legs on the breakaway.

Keith Brown, playing despite a sore back, pulled the Blackhawks even again on a drive from the right-wing circle. Then Paul Cavallini was adjudged the instigator in a fight with Manson and the Capitals seemed to be in trouble. It turned out differently.

Bengt Gustafsson stole the puck from Chicago's Troy Murray at the red line and skated in with Dave Christian, two on nobody but Pang. After faking a pass, Gustafsson maneuvered the puck into the net. The shorthanded score elicited the biggest roar since Gustafsson's pregame introduction.

Ten seconds before the first period ended, Laughlin made it 4-2 by lifting the puck over the diminutive Pang despite being hooked down by Vaive.

Midway through the second period, Chicago's Glen Cochrane was penalized for high-sticking and complained loudly enough for Marouelli to add a minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Capitals took advantage of both power plays.

First Laughlin deflected a Gartner drive past Pang. But the crowd thought Gartner had scored and littered the ice with promotional corduroy caps. When the goal scorer was announced as Laughlin, the crowd booed.

"That was all right," Laughlin said. "I liked it when they threw the hats on the ice. I wanted to keep them."

"I knew Locker deflected it," Gartner said. "I was laughing. A lot of people lost their hats on that one."

The next goal brought another shower of caps, although the tossers were unsure which Capital had earned the hat trick. The first announcement cited Laughlin, but he knew he had not touched the puck and reported that fact, so a half-hour later it was awarded to Gartner.

By this time, the fans were having too much fun to care. The sixth Washington goal meant free hamburgers for all at an area fast-food chain, a treat earned only six times all last season.

There were half-hearted boos for a goal by Duane Sutter, long a target of fans here for his black-hat role with the New York Islanders. And few were happy with Vaive's second goal, since he had decked Malarchuk with an unpenalized high stick a few minutes earlier. Also, some obscene chants followed debatable noncalls by Marouelli, who awarded the last four power plays of the game to Chicago.

So it wasn't exactly a laugher, but considering the Capitals' record of failure in October, it came close enough.

Chicago 2 1 1 4 Washington 4 2 0 6

FIRST PERIOD SCORING -- 1, Washington, Gartner 3 (Hunter, Stevens), 1:11. 2, Chicago, Vaive 1 (T. Murray), 1:44. 3, Washington, Gartner 4 (Murphy, Ridley), 5:49. 4, Chicago, Brown 1 (Presley, Manson), 12:19. 5, Washington, Gustafsson 1, 18:48 (sh). 6, Washington, Laughlin 1 (Miller), 19:50. PENALTIES -- Pivonka, Was (interference), 2:41; T. Murray, Chi (hooking), 3:07; Cochrane, Chi (cross-checking), 9:59; Hunter, Was (cross-checking), 9:59; Ludzig, Chi (holding), 12:45; McGill, Chi (roughing), 14:30; Manson, Chi, major (fighting), 17:30; Cavallini, Was, minor-major (instigator, fighting), 17:30.

SECOND PERIOD SCORING -- 7, Washington, Laughlin 2 (Gartner, Stevens), 11:52 (pp). 8, Washington, Gartner 5 (Pivonka), 13:31. 9, Chicago, D.Sutter 2 (Savard, T. Murray), 17:32. PENALTIES -- Washington bench, served by Franceschetti (too many men on ice), 4:56; Cochrane, Chi, double-minor (high-sticking, unsportsmanlike conduct), 11:08; Cavallini, Was (high-sticking), 14:46; Stevens, Was (tripping), 17:18.

THIRD PERIOD SCORING -- 6, Chicago, Vaive 2 (Savard), 4:11. PENALTIES -- Vaive, Chi (roughing), 6:21; Cavallini, Was (roughing), 6:21; Gartner, Was (cross-checking), 9:48; Hunter, Was (roughing), 13:31; Presley, Chi (roughing), 16:16; Hunter, Was (roughing), 16:16.

Shots on goal: Chicago 7 8 14 29 Washington 15 12 6 33

Power-play Opportunities -- Chicago 1 of 7; Washington 2 of 5.

Goalies -- Chicago, Pang (33 shots-27 saves). Washington, Malarchuk (29-25).

A -- 16,126.