They are older, they are slower, they are injured very often. These days, they lose almost as often as they win. They admit they are making mistakes that lose close games they never used to lose. They wonder if all those playoff games, the equivalent of almost two extra seasons, have finally, irrevocably, sapped their strength.

They also wonder about something else: their reputation. They aren't feared anymore, they say, and that may be worst of all.

To say they are the same old New York Islanders, four-time Stanley Cup winners who open the National Hockey League playoffs Wednesday at Capital Centre against the Washington Capitals, is absolutely correct.



"It had to happen," said left wing Bob Bourne, who returned the other night in Philadelphia after missing 33 games because his glove fell off in a contest in January and someone skated over his hand.

"We used to play bad and still win. That's the difference between this season and the others. We can't seem to win when we're playing bad."

But being the same old Islanders, in third place in the Patrick Division, 15 points behind the Capitals, isn't altogether bad. It's better, say, than being the same old Maple Leafs or same old Canucks.

"To me, they're still the Islanders," said Philadelphia General Manager Bobby Clarke, watching as his Flyers beat them, 3-0.

The Capitals' assistant coach, Terry Murray, was watching, too. "They're growing old together," he said, "and just getting smarter." They also are the same players who have knocked the Capitals into early summer vacations the last two seasons.

However, the numbers etch a troublesome picture for one of sports' lingering dynasties. The Islanders are the third-oldest team in the NHL: average age, 27. Nine players, many of them the team's biggest stars, have hit 30. Because of injuries, more than 400 games have been missed by players on their roster this season, which means more names (33) have been on that roster than at any other time in the team's 13-year history.

"It hasn't been easy to get a balance this year," said Coach Al Arbour.

But, moments earlier, Arbour said, "The main thing is that the year is over and now we're starting the playoffs. That's what you have to win."

And the Islanders traditionally have won that. They are a team of "Mr. Octobers." They had won 19 consecutive playoff series until Edmonton took the Stanley Cup final, four games to one, last spring, the Islanders' first playoff loss in the '80s.

That wasn't particularly shocking. What happens in the next few weeks could be. Can hockey's best money players brighten a relatively miserable season by winning another Stanley Cup? Go in "with a clean slate and start over," as perennial star Mike Bossy puts it?

Or, has time finally caught up and dragged them down?

The Islanders finished the regular season with 86 points, their worst performance since their second season. They gave up 312 goals, worst since their first season. That's 86 more than they gave up in the regular season two years ago, when the Islanders won their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.

But that's not all. If the Islanders have had a specialty all these years, it has been winning overtime games. As the game went longer, they got stronger. In these situations, the operative Islanders verb was "grind."

"The grinding game is wearing teams down, wrestling along the boards and in the corners to tire teams out and then beat them in the third period or overtime," said Ed Westfall, a former Islander who now sits behind a microphone in the team's TV booth.

The Islanders won their first Stanley Cup in overtime, and beat the hated New York Rangers in overtime last season to move on to the Capitals. This season, they had a 1-8-6 record in overtime -- and the "1" happened in the second game of the season.

"We've been faltering in overtime," said center Bryan Trottier.

"The biggest thing has been lack of aggressiveness," said Bourne. "We don't scare teams anymore. Teams were intimidated just by playing us, but we don't have that anymore."

Other things are missing. Because they are slower now and sometimes need to take desperation penalties when a defender has slipped behind, the Islanders have had to kill more penalties than any other team in the NHL (384), and also have had fewer power-play opportunities (276) than any other team.

"We're slower, and it's a concern," said Bourne. "It's hurt us. Look at Edmonton, Winnipeg, Washington . . . the Flyers used to be a slow team, but the league has changed and they now are one of the fastest."

Age has something to do with this, and so does winning. The Islanders have been in the Stanley Cup final the past five years, which means each season lasted almost to June. Bossy, 28, who led the Islanders with 58 goals and 117 points, already has played in 110 playoff games in his career. When Gordie Howe was 28, he had played in 76 playoff games, and that was considered a lot.

Or, compare Bossy with the Capitals. All of them. Since they became Capitals, the entire Washington roster has weighed in with a total of 183 playoff games.

Says Arbour, who almost retired last year and is thinking about it again this year: "We've played a year more than anybody else."

In captain Denis Potvin's case, it's almost two full seasons (157 games).

Hence, the injuries. Left wing Clark Gillies, who turned 31 yesterday, has played in 146 playoff games in 10 seasons. In late February, he sprained his ankle and thought he would miss a couple of games. He was out for 15.

So the Islanders have been forced to play rookies; some, like Olympians Pat LaFontaine and Pat Flatley, have done well. Twelve have graced the roster at one time or another this season, hardly the carefully orchestrated changing of the guard the Islanders had hoped for.

Naturally, the hurried calls to the minor leagues have not made for the best of working situations on Long Island. Some of the players acknowledge that the younger players have not "meshed" all that well, leaving a defense that has felt "a lot of pressure," and "has no confidence," Bourne said.

"There has been more bickering this year than I remember before," said Bourne, a 10-year veteran. "Nothing major. It's all out of frustration."

But as the injured veterans -- including defenseman Ken Morrow, who missed five months after major reconstruction of his right knee -- return, prospects have taken a strange turn.

They are brightening.

"Who would you rather have in the playoffs," Westfall asked. "A 30-plus player in age who may be a bit slower but has years of playoff experience, or a 22-year-old kid who can fly but doesn't have the experience?"

The way it was asked, there seemed to be no reason to answer.

"For the Islanders, this is really their beginning, in a sense," he added.

The Islanders have put together some semblance of consistency very recently; basically, in the last 16 games, Arbour said. He wasn't unhappy in the 3-0 loss, except for the goaltending of Philadelphia's Pelle Lindbergh, who got in the way of what probably would have been about a 5-3 Islanders victory.

"It's a good sign for us," Arbour said after the game. "Our mental attitude and confidence is coming. We'll be all right."

Clarke perhaps paid the Islanders the highest compliment when he said, "I don't think there is any team in the league that could sustain the injuries they have and still be where they are."

Which is at the Capitals' doorstep.