Zombies. The undead. Dazed and silent, staring vacantly, they sat on wooden boards in front of their lockers, their uniforms still on long after their time was past. Lined up shoulder to shoulder, as if awaiting the executioner's song. They believed it before, during and, yes, after the game. They believe it still. When they are lowered into the ground the Washington Capitals will go on believing they were a better team than the New York Islanders.

David Poile, the general manager, stood in the center of the room, his arms crossed tightly across his chest as if to keep himself from unraveling. He had called this game -- this fifth and decisive game in the playoff series against the Islanders -- the most important in Capitals' history. And now that it had ended in defeat he was quite stunned. "I thought we were going to win; I thought we were better; I thought it was our year," he said no louder than a whisper. "We threw everything that we had at them, and the buzzer went off, and we didn't win." He shook his graying head. "It hasn't sunk in yet."

For the third straight year the Capitals had lost their playoff series with the Islanders. The first two had been predictable. But this time, for the first time, the Capitals had been expected to beat them. They had won the opening two games, taken a historically inviolate lead to Long Island where they could have won the third game and should have won the fourth, a game they led, 4-2, in the final period. With the series then tied, they came home, to their ice and their fans, and sent 40 shots at Bill Smith. "We dominated them tonight," stated Rod Langway. "If we were ever going to win, we were going to win tonight." The gods must be crazy. Smith, as Darren Veitch said reverentially, "came up large." And the Capitals came up short, 2-1, and were sliced from the playoffs.

Too soon, they thought. For the first time since becoming a playoff team, the Capitals hadn't performed as well as had been expected.

This was something new.

And it was disturbing.

"It's a real sense of failure," said a deflated Craig Laughlin. "The first year they beat us, hey, we were just happy to be in the playoffs. Last year, we were just happy to win a series. This year, we would have been happy to win the Cup. This was the year we were there; we were ready to win the Cup." He rubbed his face and hair with a towel; 30 minutes after the game he still was soaking wet with perspiration. "It's a real hollow feeling inside now."

Laughlin might have been soaring wildly when he spoke of this club winning the Stanley Cup, but he wasn't soaring solo. Langway, who played on a Cup team in Montreal, thought this team to certainly be "a contender." According to Dave Christian, "Everyone here believed that." Including Poile and Bryan Murray, the coach. "I really felt that if we got by the Islanders, we were there," Murray said about the possibility of the Capitals playing for the Cup. "I knew we wouldn't run into another goaltender like Billy Smith, or leaders the quality of people like Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy." He appeared to be staring through the wall of the locker room and into deep space as he said, "I really felt we'd be there." He was bitterly disappointed by the result of this series. "They should have lost tonight," he insisted. "They played in the third period the same way we did the other night, backed up, and gave us chance after chance, break after break. But they got away with it." He shrugged. "You feel like, 'What do we have to do to beat these guys?' "

The Islanders.

Always the Islanders.

"You're supposed to learn things from your losses; we have to learn, once again, from the Islanders," Mike Gartner said. "But you know, I'm so tired of learning from the Islanders."

Long after most of his teammates had showered, dressed and gone off seeking comfort, Gartner still was wearing his uniform, sitting in front of his locker, working on mysteries without any clues. His eyes, cool-water blue anyway, seemed particularly chilled. "I don't even want to take my equipment off. It's hard to believe that this will be the last time this season I'll take my equipment off, so I really don't want to do it," Gartner said, forcing a smile. "To say that I feel disappointed is such an understatement. I had big dreams and big plans for this team. Not only did I think we were going to win this series, but I thought this game could have been the one to push us right to the finals."

Someone asked him about his plans, what he'd do with his long summer.

"Summer?" Gartner sat straight up like he'd been jolted. "Summer never crossed my mind. I haven't even considered it; I thought we'd be rolling on."

It was well past midnight by the time Gartner finally took off the uniform, and showered, shaved and began putting on clothes that weren't heavily padded. The coaches already had gone. One by one, the stragglers -- Bobby Carpenter, Larry Murphy, Scott Stevens, Laughlin and, finally, Langway -- filed out the door, leaving Gartner in there alone.

"I didn't expect this," he said as he adjusted the knot on his tie. "I just assumed they'd pack up the sticks and the skates, and we'd get on a bus and be on our way to Philadelphia. I really didn't expect this."

He turned to leave. There was a long flight of stairs to climb before he'd get outside, and there'd be no bus waiting.