In a stunning move made less than a month before the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals yesterday sent right wing Mike Gartner, the team's all-time leading scorer, and defenseman Larry Murphy, a second-team all-star in 1987, to Minnesota for right wing Dino Ciccarelli and defenseman Bob Rouse. One minute before the NHL trade deadline expired at 3 p.m. yesterday, General Manager David Poile completed two days of dealing that altered the character of the Capitals. Poile was hoping it also would change the team's inability to escape the Patrick Division at playoff time. Asked why he made yesterday's trade, Poile took considerable time before replying. Then he said, "It has to be considered in two different parts. One part is the defense. Over the last two days, what we've done is restructure our defense without going into our three core players -- Scott Stevens, Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher. "As for Mike Gartner and Dino Ciccarelli, I don't think there's a lot of difference between them. But I just felt that maybe a change would be better for the upcoming stretch drive and playoffs. "Our power play is struggling and Dino potentially is a good addition there. He's accomplished a lot in Minnesota and I think we're in a position to put him with a better center iceman and give him a chance to accomplish more for us than he did there." Ciccarelli comes to the Capitals with some legal baggage. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure in an incident outside his Eden Prairie, Minn., home in 1987. He was placed on probation for one year and required to attend counseling. Also, last August, he was convicted of assault, spent a day in jail and was fined $1,000 for a stick attack on Toronto's Luke Richardson last season. No other NHL player had ever received a jail term for an on-ice infraction. Ciccarelli, 29, played nine seasons with the North Stars, collecting 332 goals and 319 assists in 602 games. Gartner, also 29, compiled 397 goals and 389 assists in 758 games for Washington. If their point production is similar, the players' methods are different. Ciccarelli is a natural goal scorer who battles for position in front of the net. Gartner relies on speed to beat a defender, then unloads a powerful slap shot. Poile always has talked about the character of the Capitals, but he obviously felt an injection of emotion would not hurt a team that seemed to possess every other ingredient necessary for success. "Dino is a player full of pizazz on and off the ice," Poile said. "He enjoys life. He's outspoken. I've heard him say he's made a couple of mistakes he regrets and he's apologized for them. But he has a lot of pride and he wants to do good. This offers a new start for him, with a clean slate." Ciccarelli said he had faced up to his problems and, despite repeated criticism from the media, the fans in Minnesota had been good to him. "I let them determine whether I'm doing the job on the ice," Ciccarelli said. "I try to give 100 percent every shift, because that's what I'm getting paid for. If they're on my case, then I'm not doing the right things. But the fans have been really good. "This season has definitely been a challenge for me. There's been a lot of criticism and speculation in the media. I've read all kinds of trade rumors, most of them involving Pittsburgh. I never heard a thing about Washington. "I'm not complaining. I didn't initiate anything and I like it in Minnesota, but nobody likes losing. I've been on both ends of the stick, the Stanley Cup final (in 1981) and last place (1987 and 1988). Now I know for certain I'll be in the playoffs and it's going to be nice in a building where there's 16,000 or 17,000 consistently." Murphy, who will turn 28 today, might dispute that, but all he had to say yesterday was, "We could see it coming," referring to him and his wife, Nancy, who recently gave birth to their first child. Of Murphy, Poile said, "Larry reached his peak two years ago and since that time struggled to regain that form. I felt we were patient, but it was just not happening. It was frustrating to Larry and our team." Although Murphy was often booed by some Capital Centre fans, he chose not to comment on the trade. Told of the deal just as practice was beginning at the Montreal Forum, Murphy waited and shook hands with each of the Washington players as they left the ice. Gartner, by contrast, left the Forum as soon as he was notified of the trade by Coach Bryan Murray. Later, Gartner said on his WTOP radio show, "I'm feeling a little bit of shock. It's been a tough year for me. I missed 11 games with an injury, but it started sooner, when I had a contract problem that was never resolved. There have been discussions lately on how I've been used on the ice and that wasn't resolved, either. But I've had 10 great years and I have nothing bad to say about the Washington Capitals organization." Ironically, it was Ciccarelli's contract negotiations that created Gartner's discontent. While Ciccarelli was winning a $425,000 annual salary, the North Stars were using Gartner's more modest figures to try to show what a winger of that caliber should be paid. Gartner, who acts as his own agent, asked Poile to amend his contract. Goalie Clint Malarchuk, traded to Buffalo Monday along with defenseman Grant Ledyard for defenseman Calle Johansson, was playing out his option. However, when Poile was asked if the contract problems had played any part in the two trades, he replied, "No." The addition of Rouse, 24, gives Washington five defensemen under the age of 25. On Monday, the Capitals also got Scot Kleinendorst, 29, from Hartford for winger Jim Thomson. The team will carry eight defensemen for the rest of the season. Poile acknowledged he is running a risk by changing things to such an extent so late in the year. "There's always a danger in every move a team makes this far into the season," Poile said. "My overview is not unlike last year. We're in the same position basically, a year of highs and lows. "There have been a lot of individual inconsistencies. Because of that, the moves today and yesterday were necessary. If we arrived at this level {fifth overall in the NHL} in a consistent manner and the players involved were consistent, I wouldn't do it." DINO CICCARELLI A 29-year-old right winger who stays near the net and has good quickness. North Stars' career leader in goals (332). BOB ROUSE A 24-year-old defenseman who had been a regular with the North Stars since the '84-85 season. MIKE GARTNER A 29-year-old right winger who holds Capitals career records for goals (397), assists (392) and points (789). LARRY MURPHY A 28-year-old defenseman who had seven goals and 29 assists for the Capitals this season.