David Poile apologized for not being more "quotable." Truth is, the Capitals' general manager had said it all in a word, a gesture, a surge of deep emotion. This was after the neatest piece of history in the team's nine-year life, a playoff victory, and what Poile did--simply and eloquently--was puff out his chest, throw up his arms and sigh . . .

"Wow."

The formerly forlorn gang the area pitched together last summer to save for Abe Pollin might yet fall to the mighty Islanders in the first round of the NHL skateoff. They will not go meekly, not as long as there is a force meaner than the Islanders to be faced. That would be their own captain, Rod Langway.

Mostly, the only way to get Langway off the ice this season has been to melt it. And the only way for teammates to get him off their backs is to treat each playoff as he does: "feeling it could be my last game."

With one game still left in the regular season, Langway sensed the Capitals might already have played theirs. So Saturday, on a day off after more than an off night against Detroit, he collected the players for a meeting and mandated that they go one on one with each other.

"The sort of thing coaches usually do," Coach Bryan Murray volunteered. "Pointing fingers at guys maybe not contributing. Like: 'Dennis Maruk, you gotta work hard . . . Bengt Gustafsson, you've got to play every night, not spotty.' "

Without pointing any fingers retroactively, Langway elaborated:

"We'd been going so well. We'd lose one, then win two, that kind of thing. Never lose two in a row. To get above .500 in our division with all the young players we had made everybody happy. All of a sudden we lost three straight, and some guys weren't showing up.

"They were bitching and pointing fingers. I'm the captain; it was my turn to speak up. I said we're going against the Islanders (in the playoffs) and if everybody plays for himself we might as well not show up. Just give them the three games.

"It was right there, one on one. Two hours, with a case of beer. A couple of problems needed to be settled--and were."

Next day, the Capitals ripped the Rangers, 3-0.

"Now it's enjoyable," Langway said. "Now we're a team. When we lost (Game 1 of the playoffs to the Islanders), we had a team meal and there were some jokes. Criticism, too, but positive."

"Maybe it should have happened a couple of weeks before," Maruk added. "Either we do it, or management does."

What stopped Maruk's recent goal drought started the Capitals' rush for respect against the Islanders Thursday night in a Uniondale arena oddly quiet. Perhaps it was the three Stanley Cup flags overhead; perhaps it was the Islanders clobbering the Capitals so badly so often recently that had the crowd so complacent.

Or maybe the noise simply failed to drift up through the rafters--and clouds--to the press perch. But the fans seemed very smug, even when Maruk's whistler from the blueline sailed between Billy Smith's legs for a 2-1 lead in the second period.

Not until Bob Gould flicked a rebound past Smith early in the third period was there even a mild sense of urgency.

There was immense relief when Denis Potvin scored four minutes later, and then the silent slug of reality when Bobby Carpenter sailed around Bryan Trottier and got Washington's lead back to a relatively safe two goals.

That goal, that victory, got the Islanders' attention. And Washington's. And hockey's.

"If we'd held on for 3-2, it would have meant more," Langway said. "Keeping them off the scoreboard the final five minutes down just a goal would have been harder. It was more relaxing the last five minutes."

Anyone looking at Langway's face as he was talking had to smile. His forehead was a welt farm; his left eyelid was a light purple, and puffy. He had butted into a goalpost, and heaven knows what else, before those "relaxing" final minutes.

All season Langway worked beyond reason at times; as part of Murray's three-defender system for Game 2 through whatever, Langway will be hopping into the bench from one end and right back out from the other.

Does he enjoy the extra extra time?

"It's my job," he said, adding: "We did it in Montreal. You've got to go with your best."

Poile said even a hockey dolt should know Langway deserves the Norris Trophy as the league's most valuable defenseman; the dolt to whom he was talking agreed.

Everything you ever wanted in a captain, and more, Poile might have said had his quotable batteries been as charged as his emotional ones were drained. He could have added, but chose not to, that while the Capitals-Islanders series was tied at 1-1, the Canadiens trailed Buffalo in their series, 2-0.

"Everything is icing on the cake now," Langway said. "Playing (a Stanley Cup game) in our building for the first time. They've got a bit of pressure on them now. We've got a young club that's learning. All of these experiences add up. They (the Islanders) went through some tough times, too.

"And look at what those hard times got them."