The Washington Capitals, who left town Friday with such high hopes, will start leaving again today -- for the summer.

The New York Islanders completed another of their patented miracle comebacks last night by defeating the Capitals, 2-1, to become the first National Hockey League team to win a best-of-five series after losing the first two games.

"None of us knew that no team ever came back from that before, but when it was mentioned, it lit up a little light bulb in my mind," said Islanders captain Denis Potvin, a standout in every game. "I thought, 'Why shouldn't it be us?' "

While the Islanders move on to the Patrick Division final, which begins Thursday in Philadelphia, the Capitals can only wonder what went wrong, as, ultimately, they took a step backward following their semifinal sweep of the Flyers a year ago.

The principal reason for the Capitals' ouster, just as was the case the last two seasons, was New York goalie Bill Smith. Stopping 12 shots in the first seven minutes of the second period, when Washington was playing at its best, he finished with 39 saves.

"We bombarded him," said the Capitals' Larry Murphy, who put six shots on goal, including one that struck Smith on the left hip while he was looking the other way. "He won the game for them. We had 40 shots and a lot of them were good, quality shots."

All the scoring occurred in the second period, with Anders Kallur and Brent Sutter lifting the Islanders into a 2-0 lead before Bob Carpenter found the only chink in Smith's armor 29 seconds before the intermission.

Kallur, whose overtime goal a year ago turned the tide of the series, put New York ahead to stay last night at 10:08, on a breakaway after Craig Laughlin lost the puck trying to make a pass along the Washington blueline to Murphy. Kallur went in alone and slid the puck under Pat Riggin as the goalie flopped to try to cover the crease.

"I second-guessed myself," Laughlin said. "We (he and Murphy) were pretty close and I was playing the off side (a right-handed shot on the left wing). The puck was behind me, so I couldn't go off the boards unless I went rink-wide.

"My first thought was to go rink-wide and I was halfway there when I thought a second time and I was afraid the pass would be picked off, so I tried to go to Murph, but the puck was already moving, it went off my stick and I just watched him skate in."

It became 2-0 at 16:56 when Mike Bossy, temporarily freed of Gaetan Duchesne's shadowy presence by the penalties resulting from Duchesne's fight with Gord Dineen, made a perfect pass to Sutter in the slot. Sutter launched a quick backhander that slid under Riggin as he repeated his earlier unsuccessful maneuver.

"I didn't stop to think about Anders' shot or anything else," Sutter said. "I had to get it off quick and it went in."

The Capitals were dragging at that stage and the sellout crowd of 18,130 was losing its enthusiasm when Carpenter suddenly revived everybody with his first goal of the series. Bengt Gustafsson fed Carpenter out of the left-wing corner and Carpenter, firing quickly from the slot, put the puck past Smith's glove.

"That gave us a big lift and it showed," Carpenter said. "We came out just flying in the third period. We totally controlled the third period and we got 14 shots, but because of some intangible, we just couldn't put the puck in the net.

"We gave it our best shot. It was like there was something standing behind him to keep the puck out of the net."

For a while, it appeared that fate might be willing to give the Capitals a break. As they opened up offensively in the third period, John Tonelli, Bob Nystrom and Ken Morrow all rattled posts behind Riggin.

While the Capitals piled up the shots, however, Potvin and his teammates repeatedly cleared the rebounds. Washington's scouting report on Smith had been to shoot as often as possible, because of his tendency to leave the puck in front.

"They cleared men out for the second and third shots very well," said Mike Gartner, who was blanked after scoring in each of the first four games of the series. "That was probably the difference in the game. We didn't get second or third shots."

Gartner put four shots on goal, including a first-period rebound that struck Smith's shoulder and caromed wide by inches.

"I made a good shot and it happened to hit him," Gartner said. "I don't know if it affects your shooting, but maybe sometimes when a goalie is playing well, you cut it too fine and you miss the net. But even with all we put on the net, he was making the stops."

Over the five games, Washington outshot the Islanders, 172-125, but New York had a 14-12 scoring edge.

Smith was sensational in those first seven minutes of the second period, when overlapping penalties to Paul Boutilier and Dineen gave Washington a four-on-three edge for 35 seconds and a five-on-three edge for 1:25.

During the brief four-on-three segment, Smith stopped McEwen and Murphy twice, including the one where he was looking right while hit on the left hip. When Washington had a two-man advantage, Smith blocked four shots and had a fifth kicked aside by Potvin.

At game's end, the crowd could only admire Smith's brilliant play. But in the first period, his acting ability was greeted with undisputed scorn. During a Washington power play, Smith slashed Gartner, who was parked just outside the crease. Gartner slashed back and Smith dropped his stick and took a dive.

Referee Bob Myers assessed a minor to Smith and a five-minute major to Gartner. Afterward, however, Smith insisted that his exaggerated response was justified.

"If I did that to somebody else, I'd be suspended," Smith said. "I used one hand and hit his shin pad. He used two hands like a golf club."

The penalties had no effect on the outcome and afterward Washington Coach Bryan Murray, bitter about the officiating a year ago, said, "Last year I had a few beefs. But this time I give the Islanders full credit. People like Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin were just outstanding throughout the series.

"We tried. If you don't try and you lose, that's one thing. But this was a great effort on both teams' parts."

New York Coach Al Arbour said, "This ranks as one of the great ones for us. When it's four out of seven and you lose the first two, it looks bad. When it's three out of five, it looks a lot worse."