In the first moments of Easter, Ryan Walter still was on the ice, signing his name to anything that moved in front of him, and to some things that moved as he signed them. For the cameras -- and there had been hundreds -- an instamatic smile would greet each flash, then quickly fade into a look of equal parts frustration and fatigue.

"Didn't take this long to play the game," said the security supervisor, Ken Burns. Indeed, it took much longer for the Caps to say goodbye to their faithful than it had to play the game of their lives Saturday night in Capital Centre. Each was a unique experience.

Imagine the worst business day of your career, when the deal of your dreams suddenly turned sour. Imagine needing an 82 to finally pass an absolutely vital course, cramming as never before and mustering no more than a 79. Imagine dinner for a dozen, delicately prepared and delicious, toppling off the stove 15 minutes before it was to be served.

Recall any nondeath moment when your heart hit your feet -- and think what your reaction would be if somebody told you to get composed, almost immediately, to -- click -- snap on a happy face and spend two hours with several thousand relatives you had never seen before.

The scene on the ice after the Caps turned a 4-3 lead -- and a possible playoff spot -- into a 4-4 tie -- and elimination -- was more memorable than anything before. It was special -- and strange -- a time that could have been ugly but instead was filled with athelic affection.

Why the Caps dragged themselves back onto the ice a few minutes after as bitter an ending as games produce to endure the scheduled "Fan Appreciation Night" was not as hard to fathom as why so many fans joined them.

What was there to appreciate? Six years -- the entire life of the franchise -- of specacularly dreadful hockey. This season it seemed almost impossible to avoid the playoffs, for the NHL was inviting everyone but Tai and Randy.

The Caps missed the playoffs.

They missed the playoffs in their fashion, trying desperately but slipping at just the worst times. At the very least, the season was supposed to end in Max McNab's office, with the general manager, other officials and players listening to a radio report of Vancouver's fate -- and their own -- in a game against the Kings in Los Angeles.

It needed a victory to make that suspense come about, but the Caps let a Flame escape in the final 160 seconds for the goal that snuffed out their hopes. How could anyone named Ken Houston do such a thing to Washington?

When the game ended, there was some bitterness, one bearded fan huffing, "I got Bullets' playoff tickets -- and they blew it. I got Caps' playoff tickets -- and now they blew it. And I also hate Stroh's beer."

That was what a fellow who scarcely tolerates hockey, but who becomes more and more fascinated with the Caps, expected to burst forth all over Cap Centre. Loud and long Philadelphia-like cries of anguish. Or silence. Everybody dashing for the cars. Forget the autographs and pictures, this in one hurt too many. Let these corpses rest in peace.

But as the players cursed themselves and their luck, as some wept and others skated aimlessly, thousands of fans began to clap and cheer. At least a quarter of the sellout crowd perhaps as many as 5,000, tried to buoy the players' spirits. They stayed for the team's annual awards presentations, booing only when it was announced that the most valuable player would be announced sometime later at a press conference.

Then hundreds and hundreds began streaming down the back stairways and waiting for about 15 minutes for the team to drift into the dressing room, powder its collective nose -- or whatever -- and reappear. Not since the Mets has such mediocrity been so celebrated. Fans and players would commiserate together. The most important fan -- Abe Pollin -- watched much of it alone, hands in his pockets, his thoughts to himself. What more could go wrong? Less than 24 hours earlier, he had gone to congratulate the 76ers for whipping his Bullets -- and been seen fumbling about some doors in his own building.

Saturday night the Cap Centre scoreboard clock threw its annual April fit for a few minutes and his Caps frittered away at least the chance to end the season victoriously -- and give the Kings a chance to prolong it.

At few minutes earlier, after he visited the dressing room, Pollin turned on a group of reporters and, nearly in tears, said, "They came to the very top. They're not losers. They're winners."

This night the 17th-place team in a 21-team league had an adoring public. More people than used to watch them play streamed onto the ice for one last look, a picture, an autograph, a kind word.

A kiss.

Well, not everyone got a kiss. The puck-scarred veterans escaped. But the young heroes, Paul Mulvey, Walter and some others, were grabbed in the sort of hugs another Ken Houston once applied to Walt Garrison near the Redskin end zone.

"Paul, do you really need that towel?" a teenybopper chirped.

"I honestly do," he said.

Like prize animals at auction, the Caps lined up the length of the rink, separated by sawhorses, trying to be polite and accommodating but knowing that to be impossible. On and off the ice, they have worked to develop such a following.

"You can hardly get the Bullets out here for something like this," one longtime usher said. "You can hardly get the Caps away from here. This is by far the best they've had it."

All of the Caps stayed at least 45 minutes. They have the best sense of public relations of any team in the area. Of course, they need it. But they have accumulated enough goodwill during the embarrasing seasons to create an enormous impact when Walter and his pals begin any sort of victory explosion.

"It's nice to see" Paul McKinnon said later. "I hope we can keep the interest up. We've got something going, the nucleus of a helluva team. We should be .500 next year, capable of 80 points. With the experience, the draft, who knows. Maybe we'll be in the top eight."

And maybe the roof will fly off Abe's building when that happens. Walter was last off the ice. It was past midnight when he passed the last knot of fans. One of them yelled, "Go fishing now. Catch a big bass."

Walter's head snapped back a bit. He had been distracted so long reality came with a thud. Quietly, he said, "I'll have to now."