The Washington Capitals were reminded last night that if one lets the puck bounce around in one's end long enough, it's likely to end up in one's net.

The Hartford Whalers, who had been bagged twice in a row by the Boston Bruins, didn't do anything fancy last night. They took out their frustration by simply forechecking hard and converting Capitals' mistakes into a 3-2 victory at Capital Centre.

The 15,237 on hand were able to take part in an auction during the second intermission. Capitals Coach Terry Murray, who called a timeout early in the third period to impart a few thoughts about where to channel energy, probably would have given away the lot for a couple bills.

"We can't get by playing 20 minutes," Murray said. "That's what we tried to do."

It failed because, as Dale Hunter pointed out, "We have no Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky. We've got to work hard as a group."

The Whalers, who are 2-0 against the Capitals this season, were right smack in the middle of the Adams Division coming into the game -- 10 points behind first-place Boston and 10 ahead of last-place Quebec. The Bruins had thumped them twice in as many nights, by scores of 5-1 and 8-2.

"It wasn't that we played badly," Hartford Coach Rick Ley said of the two losses, which included several brawls. "It just seemed that every time we did something wrong, it ended up in our net."

Funny how that works. The Whalers' goals, by Todd Krygier, Pat Verbeek and Bobby Holik, all came off giveaways by the Capitals in their own end.

"They came aggressively with two men and they capitalized on our mistakes," said Capitals defenseman Kevin Hatcher, whose goal cut the Hartford lead to 2-1 in the second period.

But Holik scored 23 seconds into the third period. Dino Ciccarelli's deflected goal made it 3-2, but the Capitals couldn't draw even.

The Capitals had won eight of their last 11 games, but hadn't played since beating the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-1, here Tuesday night. They also didn't have a pregame skate yesterday morning because of Georgetown's game against Texas-El Paso. The extra sleep seemed to leave the Capitals groggy when the puck was dropped.

"We knew they had lost two big games to Boston and would be hungry," said Murray, whose team fell to fourth place in the Patrick Division race as New Jersey tied Boston, 1-1. "But we had too many giveaways, too many poor plays and too many pretty plays."

Capitals defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov failed to clear the zone and a moment or two later, Hartford's Carey Wilson had the puck behind the net. He centered to Krygier, who wasn't alone but wasn't covered. Either way, Krygier snapped a shot past goalie Don Beaupre for a 1-0 lead with 4:45 left in the first period.

In the second, Hatcher tried to wheel out of the corner and come up ice past the goal post. But Ulf Samuelsson dislodged the puck from his stick. Krygier collected in the circle to the right of Beaupre and quickly sent a pass across the slot. Verbeek simply redirected, easily beating Beaupre to give the Whalers a 2-0 lead with 4:43 left in the second.

The teams were skating with four men each when the Capitals cut the deficit to 2-1 with 3:40 left. Hartford's rookie goalie Daryl Reaugh stopped a shot, but the loose puck bounced to Hatcher at the left point. He stepped around Krygier and beat Reaugh for his 13th goal, one short of his NHL career high for goals in a season.

Unfortunately for Hatcher and the Capitals, the Whalers got the next goal to effectively eliminate any momentum generated by Hatcher's score.

On the first shift of the third period, Krygier stripped the puck from Tatarinov behind the net. Wilson collected it and fed Holik in the slot for a goal and a 3-1 lead 23 seconds into the period.

The Capitals were shut out in four power play chances. On a third-period power play, Peter Bondra missed a pass, then, in frustration, was called for slashing. That's when Murray called time.