Breaking new ground in international hockey relations, the Washington Capitals announced last night the signing of Soviet defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov of Moscow Dynamo.

At a news conference following the Capitals' 4-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils, Tartinov was introduced and given a jersey -- the No. 3 Scott Stevens wore until his departure this summer.

Tatarinov is in the United States with the blessing of his country, his former team and the Soviet hockey federation. Tatarinov, his wife, Natalya, and 2-year-old son Vladimir arrived in New York from Moscow yesterday afternoon and then flew to Washington.

Allowing Tatarinov to leave and play in the NHL represents a fundamental change in the policies of Soviet teams and their federation. Until now, only players who had reached the age of 28 could leave to play for NHL teams.

By that age, the Soviets believe, most players are out of their prime. Tatarinov is just 24 and was a member of the Soviet team in this summer's world championships.

"Certainly, I'm delighted and I know Mikhail is delighted," said Jack Button, the Capitals' director of personnel and recruitment, whose trips all over Europe helped facilitate this deal. "This is a real breakthrough for the organization, for hockey and for the NHL."

Tatarinov will practice with the Capitals today and may play in their next game, Tuesday in Philadelphia. Through an interpretor, Tatarinov said he thought he was ready to play right away.

"I want to thank these people -- first of all, Jack -- for the warm reception," Tatarinov said. "This has been a dream of mine, to play in the NHL."

The Capitals took a chance in 1984 when they took Tatarinov in the 11th round, not knowing that they would ever get him in one of their uniforms.

"The decision ended up being, 'What do we have to lose,' " General Manager David Poile said.

There had been discussion with Soviet officials and Moscow Dynamo for years. Before last season, the Capitals traveled to the Soviet Union as part of the NHL's Friendship Tour. Button then had many more meetings, all of which helped bring about this deal.

"We worked on this for years," Capitals owner Abe Pollin said. "At times I felt like giving up. But I saw him play at Rendeveous '87 in Quebec and he is a tremendous defenseman."

Indications are that the Capitals had to pay Moscow Dynamo and the Soviet federation between $200,000 and $400,000 to allow Tatarinov to leave. He signed a three-year contract and has a visa to work in the United States.

The many changes in the Soviet Union were partly responsible for the deal, Poile said.

Poile insisted that Tatarinov getting Stevens's number was a coincidence, but he is likely to play a similar role. In 44 games last season with Moscow Dynamo, Tatarinov had 11 goals and 10 assists, with 34 penalty minutes. He was paired with New Jersey's Viacheslav Fetisov in the world championships and spoke with Fetisov after last night's game.

"He had big shot in the Soviet League," Fetisov said. "He is a big talent."