The phone rang in Al Arbour's tiny office this afternoon at the New York Islanders' Cantiague Park practice facility. Arbour, looking tired after only two hours of sleep, grabbed it.

"How am I?" he said to the caller. "I'm terrible." He burst out laughing. Clearly, the coach of the Islanders felt great.

"I'm proud of these guys," he said, putting out a cigarette. "I don't know what will happen in Washington, but a lot of athletes in their situation would have packed it in.

"There's a difference between a great athlete and a special athlete. I think these guys are special."

For 12 years, Arbour, 52, has been the steadying influence, the father-figure, the motivator for one of the most successful franchises in hockey history. When Arbour took over the Islanders, they had just completed their first season in the league and set records for futility, winning just 12 games.

Since then, they have won four Stanley Cups, reached five finals and made it to the semifinals nine times. Many of their older players, now in their 30s, have been with Arbour from eight to 12 seasons.

Two years ago, after the Islanders won their fourth Stanley Cup, Arbour was so exhausted he almost gave up coaching. Last year, after losing the final to the Edmonton Oilers, Arbour again considered retiring. "How close did I come to leaving?" he asked rhetorically today. "Too close for comfort."

His players say Arbour came back because he felt the Islanders needed him around for the transition they are undergoing. They also say he felt challenged to try to win one more championship.

"I really thought he would quit after last year," said Bob Bourne, who has played 11 seasons for Arbour. "But he's so loyal, he feels so strongly about all the players here that he couldn't walk away. That's why I'm not sure what he'll do after this season. But my gut feeling is he won't be back. He's been through so much."

The last six days have added another chapter. First, the Islanders lost two overtime games in Washington, the second ending on a goal that infuriated Arbour. He cursed and pushed referee Ron Hoggarth, drawing a $7,500 fine from the National Hockey League. Over the weekend, they won two remarkably intense games here to tie the series at 2-2. Sunday, they trailed, 4-2, after two periods and looked like a beaten team.

"I knew the guys were tired in the second period," Arbour said. "The little edge wasn't there. I really don't know where they got that extra energy. A lot of players would be saying the hell with it, the sooner its over, the better. I knew they were exhausted, but the electricity in the room before we went back out was unbelievable."

Arbour expects that from his team. So many times, they have made comebacks that seemed impossible. "To be honest, I'm not sure any other team could have come back in that situation," Mike Bossy said. "But there's never panic with us. That starts with Al and works it's way through the entire team."

After watching Arbour's outburst following game two, many players saw a method to his madness. "He was angry, emotional, no doubt about it," Bourne said. "But he knew when he went across the ice that the goal was going to count no matter what he said. He was thinking ahead, trying to give us a rallying point."

Arbour's players talk about his intensity, his burning desire to win. Yet, Arbour's image has always been that of the cool, Walter Alston-type. With the wire-rimmed glasses he has worn since his playing days, Arbour looks more like a college professor than a hockey coach.

But his appearance belies his competitiveness. As a defensemen during his 12-year playing career, he was known for his willingness to go down and block shots. As a coach, he has kept the Islanders near the top of the league consistently since their first playoff appearance in 1975.

And now, he doesn't look at this fifth game as a chance to make history as much as a chance to keep playing.

"The old war horses never want to stop playing," he said. "These guys care about each other so much they don't want to let each other down. A game like last night (Sunday) makes you feel good about yourself. That's really what it's all about in sports. In reality, we haven't accomplished anything yet, we've just stayed alive. But I'm proud of them right now.

"Last night was a character game, what else can you call it? I've enjoyed these guys so much over the years because of things like that, I just hope they've enjoyed me a little bit in return."

Arbour smiled, knowing full well that the only reason he is still coaching is because he believes the players not only enjoy him, but need him.

He also knows this Islanders team is near the end of a wonderful cycle that has helped make him one of the most successful coaches in hockey history.

"Sometimes during the summer I get out tapes of some of the great games and look at them again," he said today. "I look at some of them and still get goose bumps all over my body. I see the players doing things and I say, 'My God, look at that, look at that effort.' It makes you proud. That's the way I felt last night. Proud."

And, regardless of whether Tuesday turns out to be his final game as Islanders coach, Arbour won't lose that feeling about this team. "When I'm not with them any more a little part of me will be gone," he said.

A little part or a big part, someone asked.

Arbour smiled. "A big part," he said softly. "A big part."