Right down past the three-minute mark Saturday night, the Capital Centre public-address system kept plugging the sale of Stanley Cup playoff tickets. Never mind that the Capitals needed to beat the Atlanta Flames just to keep their chances alive, there was to be no stoppage in play without some intrusion on the eardrums of the watching 18,130.

The Flames heard, too. With nothing at stake except pride, they finally wiped out Washington's playoff dream on Ken Houston's goal with 2:26 left, creating the 4-4 tie that lasted to the depressing finish.

And so those 14-ticket playoff strips, running from games A to -- appropriately -- O, were reduced to the status of collectors' items. Perhaps a few diehards will tack them on their walls and think of what might have been.

The Capitals will have six months to think, and heal, as well.

The failure of the club's playoff drive could not be attributable to the malperformance of any individual. It was mandated by an injury jinx that never released the club from its grip, not only the record 355 man-games, lost, but also the effect on so many players who skated at less than 100 percent because of bumps and bruises.

"Injuries got us early and injuries held us right to the end," General Manager Max McNab said.

The club will hold a luncheon early this week to honor both the team and the most valuable player, as selected by management. It would not be unfitting for the MVP award to be shared by Dr. George Hajjar, the team physician; Dr. Pat Palumbo, Gump Embro.

The season concluded, Embro finally permitted a viewing of that incredible report of treatments he files each game day. For this last contest against Atlanta, it read as follows:

"Edberg -- hand, thigh.

"Sirois -- rib.

"Gustafsson -- hands, wrist, thigh, knee.

"Stephenson -- back.

"Green -- groin.

"MacKinnon -- hip, leg, arm.

"Picard -- elbow.

"Hangsleben -- ribs.

"Ribble -- knee.

"Walter -- groin.

"Maruk -- knee."

That was the bare evidence. Rolf Edberg's hand was actually fractured a week ago, yet he continued to play until a charley horse forced him out in the first period Saturday.

Bob Sirois' rib is broken. Alan Hangsleben's rib cartilage was torn so badly that he chose the risk of a jolting pain to the agony of repeated taping.

Wayne Stephenson had played 22 straight games in goal, the last 10 with a back problem so severe he had difficulty straightening up in the net. Robert Picard's elbow problem is a massive blood tumor.

"It says groin next to Ryan (Walter), but you could pick any part of his body," Embro said. "And MacKinnon -- I don't know how he kept on playing. That kid has been banged up on every part of his body."

"Everybody has two or three injuries," Hajjar said. "With the walking wounded we had, it's a miracle that it came down to the last day."

The tie at least avoided three more hours of waiting, and ultimate disappointment, because Vancouver beat Los Angeles and the Capitals would have been eliminated anyway. And, although none of them would believe it, there probably was some mercy in the players, hurt as they were, not being forced to tackle those ultraphysical Philadelphia Flyers in a playoff series.

Coach Gary Green, a man who cannot abide failure, received postgame consolation from owner Abe Pollin.There is no doubt that Green will guide the Capitals to many playoff appearances in the future, with his grasp of the game that would seem to be second only to Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman.

On this final night of his first season as an NHL coach, however, Green's passion for organization and discipline may have betrayed him. With a minute left and the Capitals buzzing around the Atlanta net, it seemed an ideal moment to yank Stephenson and throw in a sixth attacker. Green had not discussed this situation with Stephenson, however, and just as Stephenson started off, Atlanta gained possession of the puck and he was forced to retreat.

"We didn't want him out in an unorganized situation," Green said. "we wanted a faceoff. But we were in such complete control that play never stopped and when I finally got his attention, it was a second too late."

That will be the memory of the Capitals' sixth season, the playoff that never was. The comeback started just a little too late, fueled by players who did not have enough strength left to push it to the promised land.