As the New York Islanders headed for their locker room to rejoice in their 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals last night, each of them paused before he left the ice.

There, up against the boards, goalie Bill Smith was doing a quick TV interview. No matter. One by one they patted him on the head, the back or just gave him a squeeze.

They knew, that as special as this night was for them as a team, it was Smith's night.

"He won the game for us," winger Bob Bourne said. "He kept us even until we got a break and then in the third period he was unreal."

Smith is 34, the original Islander, the only one left from that futile first game 13 seasons ago.

"Every big game has a certain greatness about it," he said in the Islanders' jammed locker room. "This one was great because we won. After we lost the first two games, a lot of people wrote us off. We took a lot from their fans and from them. That's what makes coming back to win a little extra special."

The Islanders won primarily because Smith saved 39 of 40 shots. In the first period, when the Capitals, boosted by the 18,130 in Capital Centre, came out flying, he was there. Before the game was 90 seconds old, he had stopped Bob Carpenter with a glove save of a rocket that seemed destined for the right corner of the net.

That started it. One minute later, Smith stopped Mike Gartner point-blank in front of the net. In the first 2:30 he had stopped the Capitals' top two snipers.

"There must be something about Billy Smith," Capitals Coach Bryan Murray said. "He gets to us in every series. We haven't solved the mystery of him yet."

To his teammates, he is no mystery. He is the guy who is always there when they need him. The game all of them remember most was the 1983 opening game of the Stanley Cup finals when he beat the Edmonton Oilers, 1-0.

That game broke the Oilers' spirit,and the Islanders swept the series.

I've never seen a goalie have a game like the one in Edmonton," Bourne said. "But tonight, Billy was damn close. He just did it for us again and again, especially during the five-on-three in the second period."

During that five-on-three, when the Capitals had a two-man advantage for 1:25, Washington took nine shots. One hit Smith's hip. Others hit his arms, his legs, his torso, his pads.

"We almost play like it's a five-on-four in that siutation because Billy's so good he's like an extra skater," Denis Potvin said. "He doesn't just make the saves, he makes the rebound go into the corner. We're so used to him doing it that we head there and get a step on the other guys because of it."

Bob Nystrom, second to Smith in seniority, shook his head when Smith was mentioned. "He's done it so many times," Nystrom said. "I've seen a lot, an awful lot. But this was right up there."

Probably the only other person in the building last night who has seen Smith day in day out for 13 years was Ed Westfall, the Islanders' first captain, now the color man on their TV network.

"Billy loves adversity," he said. "He's almost masochistic. But he's done it so many times in the past that he expects to do it again, and again. And, somehow, he does. The third period tonight was like some whole games he made so many big saves."

Mike McEwen, the Capitals' defensemen, played for the Islanders during their Stanley Cup seasons in 1981, 1982 and 1983.

"I certainly don't think he's infallible," McEwen said. "He's human. But all those guys have been together for at least eight years. They know each other. The funny thing is, Smith didn't have a good season, in fact, he had a bad season."

On Monday, as he looked ahead to this game, Smith laughed when someone asked if he had a feeling about the game. "You never have a feeling," he said. "In this game, you just don't know. Every year, after we won the Stanley Cup, people had me traded or gone from this team. But I'm still here. You just never know."

"The important thing about stopping the penalty shot Sunday was that it gave us a chance to play tonight," he said, referring to his stop of Carpenter in Game 4. "The important thing about tonight, is that it means we get to play Thursday. That's all I want to do, keep playing the game."