They were calling it a game of missed opportunities.

In losing, 4-1, to the Boston Bruins Thursday night, a game closer than the score indicated, the New York Islanders blamed themselves for not converting chances into goals.

"We needed a shovel around the (Boston) net," said Islanders Coach Al Arbour after putting his club through a brief practice at noon. "Twice we missed almost open nets. (Bruins goalie Pete) Peeters wasn't even there. Once Trots (Bryan Trottier) missed a shot and then Dog's (Duane Sutter's) backhand went wide."

Peeters, who stopped 32 Islanders shots, played "exceptionally well," according to Arbour. "But he's played well all year. Some of his saves were unbelievable, though."

Arbour called Saturday's game "a critical one" for the Islanders, necessary to tip the best-of-seven series back toward the defending Stanley Cup champions' advantage.

"I won't say it's a turning point, but we need it," he said.

"We went up there hoping for both games," said Bob Nystrom. "You can't say we played badly, but with the split, you have to just try to be satisfied and look to winning the next one."

The Islanders will get an added measure of help from the return of wing Clark Gillies, whose sprained left knee had sidelined him since before the end of the season. "He's well enough to play and I want to use him," said Arbour. "I don't know that it will be a regular shift, but whatever he can stand."

Gillies, who has been skating with the team, said his knee still has some stiffness, and a little pain, but he is ready to play again. "Any pain will work itself out," he said.

Although Gillies still is a fraction slower than his former pace, and appears slighlty stiff-legged, his improvement over the last two weeks has been noticeable.

Defenseman Stefan Persson, who sprained his right knee in the first game of the Boston series, also skated, but Arbour was unsure whether he would play in Saturday's game.

"Wish I could get some help for my defensemen, they're all injured," said Arbour, alluding to Dave Langevin's strained right knee that will keep him out indefinitely.

"We can't use that as an excuse, though. We didn't play bad in Boston. Those fans there are seeing some intense hockey."

A pair of short-handed goals by the Bruins would not exactly rate as great for the Islanders, who gave up just three short-handed goals all season.

"We were pressing so hard, and I think when you press, if things don't happen, the flow goes to the other team," said Denis Potvin, who scored the lone Islanders goal. "We had plenty of chances. We just didn't complete them."

Mike Bossy and Nystrom, usually cool-headed players, picked up two penalties each in Thursday's game. Nystrom, who collected a major penalty, said today, "I know in the playoffs you should restrain yourself instead of getting stupid penalties. Maybe it was frustration."

To a man, the Islanders are relieved to be back in the confines of Nassau Coliseum.

"They're (Bruins) awfully tough in Boston, and we're glad to be back with the home-ice advantage," said Nystrom. "We can't let them get one here."