In the end, the New York Islanders showed why they are reminiscent of the Yankees of the '50s, the Packers and Celtics of the '60s and the Steelers of the '70s.

The Washington Capitals still will be skating toward such select company when they begin their next season.

With a 2-1 victory last night at Capital Centre, the Islanders spoiled what Capitals partisans had hoped would be a night to celebrate and turned three hours of resounding boos to at least modest applause at game's end.

In the fifth and deciding game of an especially tense and hard-fought National Hockey League playoff series, the Islanders completed a comeback from an 0-2 deficit and showed why they had won four consecutive Stanley Cups, before bowing in last season's final to Edmonton. Said the Capitals' general manager, David Poile, "It's tough to beat the dynasties."

"The Islanders don't die," added Capitals captain Rod Langway. "We didn't either, but here they are, a bunch of guys over 30 playing five games in seven nights and still winning. They're winners."

It was like a former Capital said before the two teams took the ice. "The Islanders are fighters to the end," said Yvon Labre, the 1974-81 vintage Capital whose sweater hangs alone above the Capital Centre rink.

Labre was looking out into the almost empty arena -- reminiscing, worrying about this evening ahead -- just before the doors opened. When they did, the crowd rolled in like Ocean City waves.

In a scant few minutes, more hockey fans had stormed the place than the Capitals used to have in the seats at game time on many a night in the bleak early years of a franchise which now had almost arrived.

Playoff Game 5 against New York was as big a game as the Capitals have played in their 11-year history. Used to be, a win over the Colorado Rockies was all a Capital diehard could expect.

"It's going to be exciting, oh, God," said Labre, now director of community relations for the Capitals. "I honestly felt we'd win up there on the Island, ending the series . . . I guess about 10:30 we'll know. If I could only foresee it."

Along the concourse came Capitals fans, cheering, chanting. Hal Flynn of Burke, Va., carried a large shiny bell, of which he said, "I hope to ring the hell out of it.

"Especially after all those years of suffering. The only advantage was you wouldn't have to wait in line at the men's room."

Talk about bygone days -- one boy wore a Capitals jersey with the lettering Maruk, as in Dennis.

There were also Islanders fans, perhaps 1,000 or more, and for good reason: they were sensing an historic playoff comeback, and it was worth the trip here to see it. Their Islanders had shown the Capitals more than they wanted to see the last two games.

Some Islanders fans wore white-and-orange or blue-and-orange shirts, and a few seemed extraordinarily confident, exchanging high-fives long before the game began. Had a Capitals rooter noticed that frivolity, he might have gotten a hollow feeling earlier.

"If the fans get behind 'em right away," said Labre, and he wasn't talking about Islanders fans, "it can make a difference. Playing in your own building. It's hard to explain the feeling when the crowd gets behind you. I know when I was playing, and we didn't have crowds like this, you heard them. You could feel it. You'd want to show 'em you could do even better."

Labre needn't have worried about fan fervor. In that the roof didn't come off Capital Centre in the minutes before the first puck was dropped, it's safe to say it never will. Awaiting the teams' appearance, practically everyone among the 18,130 sellout was on his feet. "Let's go, Caps!" rang out.

The Islanders appeared, to boos. A roar greeted the Capitals. A scoreboard blinked the words "awesome," "terrific," "incredible." Indeed, it was.

In one pregame interview, Capitals Coach Bryan Murray allowed he had "a young team" and hoped "to get through the first five or 10 minutes of this hockey game." Then, "After that, we'll be all right."

In those first few minutes the crowd helped carry the Capitals. Then they were on their own as the din lowered -- people were inching out toward the edge of their seats, captivated by a scoreless first period. Fights, near fights, fast hockey -- this game had it all.

In the second period, the Islanders quieted all but their outnumbered faithful with goals by Anders Kallur, then Brent Sutter. And Bill Smith proved spectacular in the Islanders' net; in the period, the Capitals outshot the Islanders by 18-8, to no avail. Smith even stopped a Washington two-man advantage, which appeared to quiet the Capitals as well as mostly everyone else.

Then, fresh hope. With 29 seconds left in the period, Bobby Carpenter snapped the somber mood with his first goal of the playoffs. "Gonna be OT, gonna be OT," a fan cried, hoping for a tie and overtime.

But Smith, a future hall of famer, stopped everything else the Capitals fired at him, and with 49 seconds left and the clock stopped, hundreds headed for the exits.

The majority stayed, stood and pleaded, but even with goalie Pat Riggin over the boards, replaced by an extra scoring threat, the Capitals were thwarted. Thousands stayed to applaud as the teams shook hands. Others just sat. The faces on the Telscreen above the rink said everything: a man rubbing his hands through his hair; a woman, looking glum, hand under chin.

Bryan Murray, still behind his bench, stood alone with his arms folded. The Capitals' season was over.