The ones who cared most about the Capitals lingered longest. The scoreboard lied about how much better the Islanders were last night in winning the first series of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and an ever-growing faithful let the Capitals know it. From the final minute of the game until several minutes after, there was a standing ovation. For a game, for a season.

The third period in Capital Centre was rather like the entire season, much of the last year, in fact. The franchise had a chance to fold, but the area wouldn't let it; the team had a chance to fold when the Islanders got up three goals, but Coach Bryan Murray and such as Rod Langway wouldn't tolerate that.

Murray: "I said all along (after the Islanders took a 4-1 lead with a flurry of goals midway through the second period): 'Don't go out like (regular-season champion) Philly.' No poise (losing by six goals in the finale of a three-game sweep by the fourth-place Rangers). No dignity (acting like bullies in the process).

"Go out with a big effort."

They did.

A rout became tense, when the hockey gods smiled a bit and Ken Houston pulled the Capitals within a goal with more than nine minutes still left.

"We got a chance," a fan yelled.

That's all anybody has wanted from the team since Abe Pollin started it nine years ago: a chance. A chance to support a franchise that has enlightened management; a chance to hope for the future; hell, a chance just for a game in which the team plays professionally for more than a few moments.

After heaven knows how many changes in his front-office team, Pollin seems to have gotten it right. Murray has been bold and innovative. Last night he startled much of the sellout crowd by yanking the starting goalie, Al Jensen, and rushing Pat Riggin off the bench for 18 critical seconds of an Islander power play.

Wise and reasonable fans--and there are precious few near the press box--knew Murray was not knocking Jensen, but gambling for time, hoping his heroic defenders could catch their 87th wind while Riggin was allowed a few minutes of warmup.

Right away, Bryan Trottier wound up and sent a hummer hard on Riggin.

Into the game, but not really; on the bench one moment, into the fire all of a sudden. And what Trottier sent at him was like Jim Palmer fielding a drag bunt 20 feet from first base and throwing a mid-'60s fast ball at Eddie Murray.

Riggin wasn't Dr. Strangeglove this time.

Flicked it right out of the air is what he did.

Then Jensen returned.

That was a fine piece of maneuvering, as Murray evidently has done much of the season. Again, there weren't quite enough Capital bodies to match the coach's mind.

"(Mike) Bossy hits the post and it goes in (for the goal that gave New York a two-goal lead with 166 seconds left)," Langway lamented. "That's how the whole season went."

Too late, but rarely for lack of effort.

"The game's full of ifs," General Manager David Poile said. "Some of our inexperience showed. I'd be wrong not to admit that. Some of them reacted out of character. That'll pay off in the future, but I really thought we could have beaten the world champs."

Winning one game was enough for most of us; gaining third place in the Patrick Division during the regular season was even better.

"If on Sept. 1 anyone had said we'd do that, I'd have been very satisfied," Poile added. "No one knew what might happen. But as the season went on and the points kept piling up, I got greedier and greedier."

So did much of the crowd last night.

Early on, the enthusiasm kept building. Then the Islanders got lucky, as special teams usually do. There was Bob Bourne sliding out of the penalty box; there was the puck all but waiting for him, with a clear patch of ice between him and Jensen. One stroke of good fortune; one stroke by Bourne and a tie game is broken.

New York knows how to go for the hockey jugular, and in less than four minutes that one-goal lead had grown to three. And when the Capitals then managed to botch a two-man advantage for two minutes, the Centre was silent.

Sort of.

"Don't believe it," one of the fickles cried.

Actually, that was what most of us were thinking.

"Get rid of Murray," he added.

Nobody else thought that.

Or should have.

Amid this flash of nonsense, on the ice and off, Washington scored.

"Make it interesting," the fellow ordered.

The team complied.

When Bossy scored the clincher, those of little faith fled in a hurry, as though there had been an announcement that IRAs were being dispensed in the parking lot. When John Tonelli scored on a open net about a minute later, another wave left.

A surprisingly large core remained.

And as the final 59 seconds of the game and season elapsed, the ovation built.

It reached a peak shortly after the horn signaled the end, after Bob Gould split his stick on the ice in frustration, as the Capitals and Murray exchanged handshakes with their Islander counterparts and started for the dressing room.

"We'll be back," somebody shouted.

In a big way, Poile promised.

Quietly.

"With the Islanders, Rangers and Philly," he said, "we were just thinking fourth place and the playoffs this year. We'll be right at the top of the Patrick Division the whole next season."