Last night, before the New York Islanders won the game, the Washington Capitals might have lost it.

Several minutes before the Islanders scored the two goals they needed to defeat the Capitals, 2-1, at Capital Centre to win their Stanley Cup series, the Capitals spent one minute and 25 seconds with two more men on the ice than the Islanders.

It was a situation that would seem to answer the prayers of any team locked in a 0-0 tie in the second period of the most important game of the season.

It was, the Capitals said later, the crucial break that could have won the series.

It was, said Islanders left wing Bob Bourne, the "turning point" of the game."

And the Capitals got nothing from it.

"I thought we had quality chances," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said quietly after the game. "I always tell my team when we get a power play to get some shots, get some chances out of it. We did."

In all, nine shots -- almost all slap shots from the point through a crease clogged with Islanders -- bombarded Islanders goalie Bill Smith in the two minutes the Capitals had either a one- or two-man advantage.

Smith stopped them all, one with his rear end as he turned to watch Bengt Gustafsson behind the net as he passed to Larry Murphy, who drove the puck into Smith.

"What did we have, 10 shots in two minutes?" asked defenseman Mike McEwen, almost incredulous at the thought. "All we needed was a lucky break and we would have had a goal. There is such a fine line between winning and losing."

Once before in this series, the Capitals had a two-man advantage. Playing with five men against three and down, 1-0, in the first game, Murphy scored on a slap shot to tie the game. Sixteen seconds later, now five on four, he scored again to give the Capitals the lead in a game they eventually won in overtime.

The Islanders were not going to let that happen again, and, in a sense, perhaps demonstrated why this series went the way it did.

"We changed what we were doing because of that (Murphy's two goals)," said Islanders captain Denis Potvin. "We wanted to make them move more quickly, to pass more quickly."

The strategy was not restricted to the power play. Mike Gartner, who went scoreless after getting four goals in the first four games, noticed a difference last night when he came into the Islander end.

"We didn't execute as well as we would have liked, but that was at least partially because they cleared us out of in front of the net," he said.

"They were taking me right at the red line and not letting me get away at all. They all took their men from the red line to the corners. They didn't do that earlier in the series."

But, none of that might have mattered had the Capitals scored when New York's Paul Boutilier went out for four minutes early in the second period (taking Washington's Greg Adams with him for two of those minutes) and teammate Gord Dineen followed Boutilier to the penalty box moments later.

"Maybe it bothered us we didn't score, but only for a few seconds," Gustafsson said. Murray thought it might have stayed in the Capitals' minds for "five to eight minutes."

Either way, the boost it gave the Islanders might have been more important.

"I thought it was the turning point," Bourne said. "It gave us an emotional lift. I noticed when I went back to the bench, everyone was really alive.

"We had been emotional before that, but it gave us an extra pickup."

Said Smith, who stopped 39 shots in all, "All that's important is that the score stays 0-0. I don't care if it was five on five or five on two."

As Potvin said, it may never have really been five on three.

"The key is, with Billy, it made it five on four."

For the Capitals, the situation only worsened. There were no other breaks, and the game was lost.

"What am I going to do tomorrow?" asked McEwen.

There will be time for second-guessing. But Murray doubts there will be any.

"I wouldn't do anything different," Murray said, "other than win."