HARTFORD, CONN., NOV. 21 -- It is easy to see why Dale Hunter is so widely detested around his old hunting grounds in the Adams Division.

Hunter jabbed Hartford's Brent Peterson in the chest during a first-period faceoff tonight, with rather startling results. Peterson attacked his tormentor and drew two minor penalties, both of which the Washington Capitals turned into goals en route to a 4-3 victory.

For added frustration, Peterson was forced to leave the game with fractured ribs, the result of an earlier collision that prompted his unrestrained reaction to Hunter's probing.

Mike Gartner scored twice for the Capitals, who were winning for only the second time in eight games. Sylvain Turgeon had two for the Whalers.

Goaltender Clint Malarchuk blocked 29 shots in a superb performance for Washington. He was especially tough during a first period in which the Capitals were outshot by 15-7, yet escaped with a 1-1 tie.

After David Babych sent the Whalers in front with a power-play goal, Greg Smith stole the puck and sent a headman pass to Gartner for a breakaway goal that got Washington going.

"I turned it over and looked up and saw one of our guys," Smith said. "I didn't know it was Garts, but I passed it up and he scored. It gave us some life, got us back in the game."

Nineteen seconds before the period ended, Hunter jabbed Peterson in the faceoff circle. Peterson, in pain from the earlier injury, swung his stick and jumped on Hunter, punching away. Hunter simply turtled until they were separated.

"We were jostling on the faceoff and then the way he jumped me from behind, I didn't have much chance, anyway," Hunter said. "Rather than scrum around and draw an extra penalty, I just covered up."

Said Peterson: "He speared me twice and I slashed him back. I deserved the aggressor, but the guy should have got something. They wound up getting two power-play goals and it cost us the game."

To make things worse, from Hartford's viewpoint, it was Hunter's perfect centering pass from the right wing boards that enabled Gartner to one-time the puck past Mike Liut for his 13th goal early in the second period.

That put Washington ahead to stay and, on the second of Peterson's two penalties, Mike Ridley deflected a Kevin Hatcher drive between Liut's legs for a 3-1 lead. Until the pair of goals, Hartford had killed off 27 straight penalties.

Ridley was off for holding when Turgeon's first goal reduced the Whalers' deficit to one.

Early in the third period, the Capitals had just finished skating off a hooking penalty against Michal Pivonka when Hartford's Paul MacDermid sent Peter Sundstrom crashing into the boards.

The rest of the Whalers seemed to be admiring MacDermid's handiwork, because they offered no resistance and little pursuit when Hatcher scooped up the puck and carried it into the Hartford end. Ulf Samuelsson, the lone defender, chose to cover Hunter to prevent a two-on-one pass, so Hatcher shot instead and lined the puck over Liut's left shoulder for the clincher.

"The puck popped loose and it was right there," Hatcher said. "Sometimes you get caught on a rush like that and most of the time you don't try it with a one-goal lead, but the way it popped out was just perfect. You can't pass up a two-on-one like that.

"The defenseman covered Dale and took the pass away, the way he's supposed to, and gave me room to shoot. I just shot it and it worked well."

The goal turned out to be the official game-winner, because Turgeon converted a pass from Kevin Dineen with 1:14 left to make it somewhat uncomfortable for Washington. However, the Whalers did not come close after pulling Liut with a minute left, Bengt Gustafsson skating away much of the time.

Afterward, the two coaches took a different view of Hunter's efforts.

Washington Coach Bryan Murray said: "It's obvious that Hartford doesn't like Dale, but he's a competitor. He's where the action is and he makes things happen."

Hartford Coach Jack Evans: "I think that call on Peterson was bad. For him to do that, especially with a guy like Hunter, wasn't without provocation. That certainly hurt us. It was the turning point in the game.

"I'm not blaming Peterson; I'm blaming the referee {Denis Morel}."

If anyone could understand Peterson's frustration, it was teammate Stewart Gavin. Malarchuk twice stopped Gavin on breakaways and on a third occasion, while lying on the ice, Malarchuk reached out with his stick to block what appeared to be a certain goal.

Malarchuk was boosting his career record against Hartford to 8-1-2.

"They always come out hard the first 10 minutes here," he said. "If you can hold them early, you're in the game. They've got some good goal scorers. It's never easy."