The end came in a manner Dan Bouchard's critics have come to expect. The Quebec goalie dropped a routine shot by Denis Potvin, tried unsuccessfully to smother the puck and floundered in distress, several feet out of the net, while the New York Islanders' Wayne Merrick scored the game-winner.

Merrick's goal, which gave the Islanders a 5-4 victory and a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven Prince of Wales Conference series, came at 16:52 of sudden-death overtime Saturday night and wrote one more chapter in the complex career of Bouchard, long considered one of the NHL's most talented and erratic netminders.

Bouchard spent eight years in Atlanta, four times compiling goals-against marks below 2.80. Never did the Flames win a playoff series, however, and often the reason cited was Bouchard. He rarely inspired confidence in his teammates at crucial moments and once departed the premises in a pout after an unsettling warmup.

Dealt to Quebec soon after the Flames decamped for Calgary, Bouchard became the hottest hand in hockey. Joining the Nordiques in late January 1981, he compiled a 19-5-5 record with a 3.17 goals-against mark and carried a struggling team into the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he distinguished himself in a tough five-game series against Philadelphia.

This season Bouchard played 60 games, posting a 27-22-11 mark, and became a hero with the Nordiques' rabid fans after Quebec upset Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. Bouchard was in the net all five games and was sensational in the decisive contest in the Forum, when the Nordiques won in overtime, 3-2, although outshot, 35-19.

After a poor opening game against Boston in the second round, Bouchard suddenly disappeared, amidst rumors that he could not handle the pressure, that he had fought with a teammate and that he was suffering from food poisoning.

He returned for the decisive seventh contest in Boston Garden, replacing John Garrett, who had played five solid games. There were no signs of a layoff, as Bouchard stopped 28 shots and the Nordiques prevailed, 2-1.

"People always judge," he said. "Some day they will be judged. I was tired from the Montreal series. I got sick and had to be fed intravenously in the hospital. The doctor will vouch for that. A fight? As God is my judge, it never happened."

That explanation, plus his brilliant performance, presumably would have removed forever the "choke" label Bouchard had been forced to wear since his early days in Atlanta. Now, however, after three unsuccessful starts against the Islanders, the doubts are being raised again.

Bouchard could hardly be faulted for the Nordiques' 4-1 loss in the opener at Nassau Coliseum, but he was awful as they dropped a 5-2 decision in Game 2.

The first goal, coincidentally scored by Merrick, came after New York apparently was about to be called for icing. But Bouchard thought the Islanders' Anders Kallur might get to the puck first. The goalie took a belly flop, touched the puck while losing his stick and lay helplessly on the ice as Merrick swept in to swat it into the empty net.

In the third period, with Quebec down, 3-2, Bob Bourne fired a routine 30-footer that struck Bouchard's right pad and popped into the net, sealing the decision.

Before Saturday's game here, there was speculation that Bouchard would be benched in favor of Garrett. Instead, Coach Michel Bergeron stuck with his No. 1 man and was rewarded today with considerable second guessing that he should have made the switch.

Bouchard could hardly be blamed for the Islanders' first four goals, but it will be difficult for Quebec followers to forget the sight of the goalie on his hands and knees, searching for a puck he should have held in the first place, as Merrick banged it into the net.

"It was a great hockey game and it's too bad it had to end like that," Merrick said.

Whether Bouchard's season ended with it is up to Bergeron. In what can only be a search for a miracle, Bergeron probably will switch to Garrett for Game 4 here Tuesday. If that happens, Bouchard will not protest.

"John Garrett is a good goaltender," Bouchard said. "He never complains and he's been a big help to the team. He showed a lot of character when he wasn't playing."

Bouchard has shown character since his arrival in Quebec, following those stormy times in Atlanta. But he claims he controlled his volatile temper during his last two years with the Flames and believes that prayer will overcome whatever adversity is forced upon him.

"I came to realize that I was traveling down the wrong road," Bouchard said. "There comes a time in professional sports when you begin to have a feeling of emptiness. You feel a need to give some meaning to the things that surround you and to the things you do. Then you discover the Bible has the answers."

If Bouchard could not find the puck at a crucial moment Saturday, at least he seems to have found the means to withstand the reaction to that lapse.

Vancouver defeated Chicago Saturday night, 4-3, to take a 2-1 lead in the Campbell Conference series, with Game 4 scheduled Tuesday in Vancouver. The Canucks won after learning Coach Roger Neilson had been fined $1,000 and the club $10,000 for Thursday's towel-waving incident in Chicago.

Brian O'Neill, NHL executive vice president, said Neilson's conduct "disgraced the championship series."