The past two weeks were filled with subtle signs that Washington Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar was turning his season around. He made fewer mental mistakes. He played stronger around the net. He snapped crisper passes and began shooting the puck more.

The overt signals came last night when the 25-year-old netted his first career hat trick in 323 games as the Capitals buried the flopping Montreal Canadiens, 6-1, before 10,155 at MCI Center. His countryman, Andrei Nikolishin, registered three points; Gonchar (four points) entered the game with three goals, then scored three in 30 minutes with his mother watching--she is visiting from Russia to be with her son for the Russian Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7.

It was only the second time in franchise history that a defenseman scored three goals; Kevin Hatcher did it in 1993 against the New York Rangers.

Gonchar, a notoriously slow starter, has six goals in the past 12 games after scoring none in his first 20. Last season, Gonchar failed to score in his first 13 games, then went on a 21-goal binge.

"I've been expecting this for a long time," said Gonchar, who continues to improve with his regular partner, Joe Reekie, back from injury. Gonchar has scored five goals in nine games with him. "Hopefully I will break through and goals will come a little more often now. . . . The last couple of games I have more confidence in myself and jump in a little more often and that's why I have those chances and get those goals."

The Capitals set a season high for goals and stretched their unbeaten streak to four games (2-0-2), tying their season high. They improved to 14-16-7 and 9-4-7 at home, and have earned points in 14 of their past 15 games at MCI Center (8-2-5, with one overtime loss). The goal-hungry club was held to a total of five goals in its previous three games--there should be ample chances for Gonchar and his teammates to add to those totals with three straight games against expansion Atlanta.

"We needed to get some goals," said winger Ulf Dahlen, who picked up two points last night. "We've been creating a lot of scoring chances but it's good for the confidence to get the breakthrough like we did tonight. Hopefully, we can use this and carry it over to the next games coming up, because they're all big games for us and we've got to get wins."

The Canadiens opened the scoring on Sergei Zholtok's power play goal about two minutes into the game. Gonchar, who led the team with 13 power play goals last season, responded on Washington's first man advantage, aiding the NHL's worst home power play. Peter Bondra, who left the game after aggravating his injured knee in the first period, sent the puck back to Gonchar, who teed up from the left point. Chris Simon leaped as Gonchar's rising slapshot cut between his legs and struck the back of the net, sending goalie Jeff Hackett's water bottle flying into the boards.

Jeff Toms (two points) scored his first goal since Jan. 2, 1999, about eight minutes into the game, and the rout was on. The Canadiens had 11 shots in the first 10 minutes and then were swarmed. The Capitals scored three times in the second period, blowing open the game with a 5-1 lead. Before last night they had not defeated a team by more than two goals at home and had played three straight overtime games.

"Mentally, when it's 1-1 and 2-2 and then you go overtime, those are playoff games," goaltender Olie Kolzig said. "They wear on you mentally quite a bit. It was relaxing for everybody tonight to have that kind of a cushion going into the third period."

Nikolishin threaded a perfect cross-ice feed that Gonchar re-directed about two minutes into the second period, making it 3-1. Less than five minutes later Oates (24 points in his past 24 games) sent a backhander to the net and Simon used his hefty frame and reach to poke the puck high, giving him five goals in the past seven games.

Gonchar struck for the third time midway through the game. Jan Bulis tried to feed Richard Zednik cutting through the slot, but he was tied up and missed on the one-timer. Gonchar sent the puck into the net.

By the time Hackett realized Gonchar had scored his third goal of the game, the Capitals and their fans cluttered the ice with hats in recognition of Gonchar's achievement.