LANDOVER -- Suddenly, the Washington Capitals have the monster goal-scorer their fans have been screaming for.
Last night, Peter Bondra went where no other Washington Capital has gone -- to the top of the NHL's goal-scoring list.
Bondra scored his first hat trick of the season and has 29 goals, tying the Quebec Nordiques' Owen Nolan and Detroit Red Wings' Ray Sheppard for the goal-scoring lead.
His performance, which had 15,721 fans on their feet in a frenzy at USAir Arena, anchored the Caps' 6-3 victory over the Hartford Whalers.
"I don't think about how many goals I score," said Bondra, who scored twice in the second period to give Washington a 3-1 lead and control of the game. "I had fun, but the main thing is we won the game. It's a great feeling to be one of the top guys. . . . It helps my confidence and will help me to play even better."
Bondra's outburst couldn't have come at a better time for the Caps (18-17-7) in their playoff chase.
Washington improved its point total to 43 and took sole $l possession of the sixth playoff spot (the top eight qualify) in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the New York Rangers and Hartford. Tonight, the Caps will try to keep it going on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I know people have been longing for a goal-scorer for a number of years, but we're just happy his goals are helping us to win," said Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We're going to have to play at this level or a higher level the rest of the way. So my thinking is, let's keep him going. Let's just cut him loose and let him go."
Said general manager David Poile: "You need people on your team who are threats to score. It puts the opposition in a defensive posture and it gives you a chance to win some games. If the team you're playing feels you're not going to score many goals or be much of a threat, you can be shut down pretty easily.
"Now, with a player like Peter Bondra, how he has developed this year, is just great because he is a threat every time he is out on the ice. I think he has just matured. Playing in the league, [he's] coming to grips with his strengths and weaknesses.
"We always said he had the talent but he was inconsistent. All he has done this year is become consistent."
In all the excitement over Bondra, a strong performance by rookie goalie Jim Carey (26 saves) was nearly overlooked.
Hartford managed three goals, one early by Andy Cassels and two in the third period. The first was by Adam Burt with 6:23 gone in the period, and the last, with 28 seconds left, came when three Caps inadvertently piled on top of Carey and prevented him from making any attempt on a shot by Ted Drury.
Bondra did not score in the third period, but the Caps kept up the production with goals from rookie defenseman Sergei Gonchar, his first in the NHL, and Mike Eagles, his first as a Capital. Eagles joined the Caps from the Winnipeg Jets in a deal at the trading deadline April 7.
NOTE: Caps fans contributed $7,600 to the Red Cross relief fund set up for the bombing victims in Oklahoma City. The club will match the contribution.