There has been a revision of thought so shocking that some traditionalists believe the revisionists ought to be carried away, feet first, and locked in a room with soft walls. These eccentrics are walking around loose with the idea that the Washington Capitals can end the New York Islanders' domination of hockey.

Now comes as loose an eccentric as there is (blush) to say he accepted this idea only recently and with the reluctance of a hockey dabbler/ignoramus (pick one) who knew the history of the Capitals was that just when things looked darkest, they got darker.

You could count on the Capitals. Give them gold, they turned it into lead. They were predictable. As soon as sportswriters dared suggest the Capitals might/maybe/could reach the playoffs, the Capitals came down with such trembles of expectation that they couldn't knock the puck into the Potomac from the 14th Street bridge.

The natural reluctance to give up convictions learned at pain has been overcome by two circumstances only the truly crazed would have imagined six months ago. For one, the Capitals have earned a place in the playoffs. Nothing they can do to mess that up. The second circumstance is more mystical, more subjective, and maybe you had to be there to feel it.

It came Saturday night at Capital Centre when the Capitals trailed the Flyers, 1-0. The Flyers were on a four-minute power play late in the first period. To give the best team in hockey (maybe) an extra man for four minutes is to invite it to score twice more.

Instead, the Capitals held firm.

They kept their all-star defenseman, Rod Langway, on the ice the entire four minutes. They alternated three groups of penalty-killers with him. And when the four-minute power play ended, most of the 18,000 customers did something memorable.

They rose as one.

Now, customers often rose at Capital Centre in other years. Mostly to go home early.

This time they sent up a standing ovation that was a milepost in this magical season, and 20 seconds later the Capitals scored, setting a tone that produced a 4-3 victory.

"We could have lost and used excuses like we were tired or the referee was bad or we had injuries," said David Poile, the general manager. "Somebody described us as 'gutsy.' I like that word."

"Early in the season, the fans didn't respond," said Bryan Murray, the coach. "But that ovation Saturday night was a very, very positive factor. That's the home-ice advantage."

It seems certain the Capitals will meet the Islanders in the playoffs' first round matching the second- and third-place division finishers. The question is, who will have the home-ice advantage in the three-of-five series beginning with two games in the rink of the second-place team?

"The Islanders' schedule seems to be easier than ours," Murray said. "It's going to go down to the last couple games."

After tonight's game at New Jersey, the Capitals play on the Islanders' ice Saturday night. The teams have split five games (2-2-1) and if any Capital is trembling against expectation now, his name is secret.

Rod Langway: "The Islanders have that experience, they're the champions. But there's no doubt we'll play them very well. They're not the same team they were two years ago, and neither are the Capitals.

"Some of their players are getting older, and they have some rookies now you can take advantage of.

"We match up very well with them. We skate as well, a little better maybe. We have speed, they have some speed. Defensively, they have a little more than we do. Denis Potvin is the key on their power play, which is better than ours. But our penalty killing is better."

Poile: "Three weeks ago, Bryan, Terry (Murray, the assistant coach) and I started talking about the Islanders . . .

"You tend to dwell on the Islanders' three superstars: Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Potvin. We said we can't do that and lose sight of the fact the Washington Capitals are a pretty good hockey team. We have to believe in doing what we can do. That's the reason we're pretty good, doing those things, and it's important to remember to use our strengths and not simply worry about stopping Trottier."

Saturday's game is a psychological measuring stick. Last month there, the Islanders won, 8-3.

"We must be competitive," Murray said. "If we lose by a goal or win by one, it will do a lot for us. We don't have to win, necessarily, but we can't afford to get blown out again."

"It must be hard being No. 1 three years in a row," Poile said, trying to explain the Islanders' mediocre (for them) work this season. "Everybody wants to knock off the king. Maybe that's caught up with them. Billy Smith (the goalkeeper) isn't having a banner season, either, and I don't care what anyone says about the three superstars, if they don't have top-quality goaltending, then they're vulnerable."

Then Poile reined in his enthusiasm a bit. "Or it could be they're just laying in the weeds, waiting. When you're a three-time Stanley Cup champion, the 80-game season doesn't mean anything. Their whole season is in the playoffs, whereas for the Washington Capitals every game is important."