Hockey players usually hide their bruises beneath their pads and their machismo. There was no way to hide the Washington Capitals' hurt tonight.

Mike Gartner was coughing up blood and having trouble breathing after another day on the job. As he headed home to the hospital, he was asked if he was in pain. "Not really," he said. "Mentally much more."

The 4-1 loss to the Islanders left all the Caps gasping for breath. Their fate was no longer in their own hands. Some said it was in the hands of Quebec which had to beat or tie Toronto to keep the Caps alive. Others said it was in the hands of God.

Coach Gary Green insisted, "It's not a deathwatch."

but the locker room looked like a morgue, and the whispers sounded very much like condolences.

Ryan Walter is a very pleasant man with an equally pleasant face, considering that he collects stitches for a hobby. It is astounding how much more the scars on a man's face stand out when he is sad. "Just like last year," he said, tossing his equipment away, almost gently.

"We were so up, we were over-up."

And how they were so down. Green said, "It's tough when you're playing two teams that need it so badly. Let's face it, the game came down to who really wanted it badly. We really wanted it and the Islanders really wanted it. But they didn't win the Stanley Cup because they are lucky and they didn't clinch first because they are lucky."

Dennis Maruk, who scored the Capitals' only goal, his 47th of the season, said, "They wanted it more than we did. We didn't fight like we did in Boston. First place was on the line for them; 16th was on the line for us . . ."

When the Islanders took a 2-0 lead at 7:18 in the first period, an insensitive soul in the stands offered the Caps somne advice. "Call 911," he yelled.

Certainly, it was en emergency. But, as Maruk said, "When it got to be 2-0, they were sitting back on it. We weren't able to get much offense going. 2They took us out well. But, even on the power plays, we couldn't get going. We didn't attack like we should have."

Jean Pronovost said, "Confidence is a factor. Throughout the game, we didn't have the confidence that we could do it. We could have changed the game if we had scored first. But when you start doubting yourself, you're in trouble . . . I don't think mentally we were all that ready. We were flat."

Darren Veitch was drying himself in the privacy of the training room. He is a rookie and not very good at this. "I don't know what I'd like to do. Everyone is mad. You don't even have to ask . . ." He wiped his face. Who knows whether it was from a shower or a tear. "I'm a grown man and I could probably break down and cry right now."

"I'd like to go back to the month of February," said Alan Hangsleben, "and change about 10 of those games, when we had nine or so guys out of the lineup and we didn't play up to expectations. We've played very well the last 12-14 games. It was the 13 when we didn't have a win that killed us."