As Washington Capitals owner Abe Pollin headed for the door of his team's locker room tonight, he paused at Mike Gartner's locker for a moment.

"Tomorrow night, Mike," he said. "It will be tomorrow night."

Gartner nodded his assent. Around him, his teammates quietly were harping on Pollin's theme in the wake of their 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders in Nassau Coliseum. "We're still in the driver's seat," Gartner said. "We're still leading the series 2-1, and that means they have to win two games, we only have to win one."

But Gartner and his teammates knew they could have been in much better shape than that. The Islanders still are proud champions, Stanley Cup winners four times and finalists the last five seasons. But they have lost a step, and tonight, even though they played well, they were beatable.

"It seemed as if we played not to lose rather than playing to win," Gartner said. "That was our big mistake. They were aggressive. They always are, but maybe we should have gone after them a little bit more when it was still scoreless."

A few feet away, Scott Stevens, one of the most aggressive of the Capitals, agreed with Gartner. "We could have forechecked them more early," he said. "In their building we expected them to come out strong and they did. But we played a really good first period and maybe could have gotten on top of them.

"But we didn't quite do it. They got the breaks tonight."

The breaks came in the form of two third period goals that finally broke the tension in the building. The Islanders fans, spoiled by so many years of success here, seemed content to wait and see if this old team had one last gasp in it before rallying behind it.

"All our hard work that produced nothing in Washington finally paid off," said Islanders captain Denis Potvin, who has looked in this series like the Norris Trophy winner he once was. "I think the Caps knew there was no way they were going to come in here and skate away with an easy victory.

"This team has too much pride for that. If we're going to lose, it will only be because our best effort wasn't enough. The room was very quiet before the game tonight. But as the game wore on with the score tied, we felt, I think, confident.

"In Washington, they got the breaks. Tonight, we got them. We know there's still a hell of a long way for us to go in this series. But I think the Caps know there's a long way for them to go, too."

What Gartner and Stevens saw as tentative hockey on their part, the Islanders saw as good hockey on theirs.

"You don't expect them to say we played well do you?" said Dave Langevin, the oft-injured defenseman who played his first game of the series tonight because of Thursday's injury to Tomas Jonsson. "This is a one-goal series, that's the way it's meant to be. The third period tonight was almost like an overtime. You felt like the team that got the first goal was going to win. That's what happened."

The entire game, in fact, was played like sudden death. Both teams spent a lot of time shooting the puck in from the neutral zone, then backpedaling into defensive position. Referee Ron Wicks didn't call a penalty that would have created a power play for the last 34 minutes of the game, adding to that atmosphere.

"We're both good defensive hockey teams, so you expect a low scoring game," said Gartner. "That doesn't mean it isn't going to be aggressive. But they realize they can't take stupid penalties against us and we can't take stupid penalties against them. We just respect each other too much to make foolish mistakes."

Still, one might have expected the Islanders, angry over the controversy surrounding Gartner's game-winning goal Thursday, to come out buzzing the Washington net. Instead, they got four shots during the first 36 minutes.

One also might have expected the Capitals, leading the series, 2-0, to have played less cautiously, not to play, as Gartner put it, "not to lose."

Potvin explained the Islanders' approach: "We've been in a lot of tight spots over the years and this was just another one. You're afraid in a situation like this from the first minute until the 60th. Not scared, but afraid that if you don't do your best, you'll go home. When it's this close, when it's tied after 45 minutes, we're confident. Not cocky, but confident."

Were the Capitals perhaps a bit awed at the thought of completing a sweep of the Islanders in their own building?

"No," Gartner said firmly. "That kind of thing is over with. It may have been so two years ago and last year when we lost to them, but not anymore. We know we can beat them, we expect to win against them.

"We were a little tentative in their building because we didn't know quite what to expect. Now we know what to expect. We won't let it happen again. Tomorrow will be different."

Potvin agreed. "This was just one hockey game," he said. "Winning feels great but if we don't win again tomorrow, this one won't mean anything. I love this time of year. I love the pressure. I'm not ready for it to end."