When they were alone Tuesday night, when they reached the solitude of their locker room, away from the jeers and taunts of many in the Capital Centre crowd of 18,130, the New York Islanders finally let go -- if only for a moment.

"We all looked at each other," said left wing Bob Bourne, "and said, 'The Islanders are back.' It was a nice moment."

Actually, the Islanders were never that far gone. But after their four-year grip on the Stanley Cup finally was loosened last spring by the Edmonton Oilers, and after they went through their worst regular season since 1974, a lot of people thought the foundation was crumbling.

When they then began the playoffs by dropping consecutive overtime games here to the Washington Capitals in a best-of-five series, the obituary writers had their pens poised.

The headline even was written: "Hockey Dynasty, 13, of age and attrition."

After all, no hockey team had come from a 2-0 deficit to win a five-game series. But no team has come back as many times in as many ways as the Islanders.

"Before the game tonight we talked about being the first team to come from 2-0 down to win," said captain Denis Potvin, after the 2-1 victory over the Capitals. "We hadn't been aware of it until after we got behind 2-0. But when we did, we said to ourselves, 'Why not the Islanders?' "

Indeed, why not the Islanders, given their legacy of comebacks. It began in 1975 when the then-third-year expansion team, in its first playoff, became the second team to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. That was against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the next round, the semifinals, the Islanders almost did it again, coming from 3-0 down against the Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers to tie the series before finally losing the last game in the Spectrum.

In 1982, they trailed the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, with less than six minutes to play in the fifth game of the opening round and came back to win in overtime.

In 1984, they trailed the New York Rangers 2-1 in games and 1-0 after two periods of the fourth game, facing elimination, at Madison Square Garden. They scored four goals to win, then won the fifth game in overtime. In the semifinals that season, they lost the first two games to Montreal, then swept the next four.

And now this. Not only did they overcome the 2-0 deficit in games, they overcame a 4-2 Washington lead after two periods in game four against a team that hadn't blown a two-goal third-period lead all season.

"That's where the experience comes in," Potvin said. "Our memories of what we've done and their memories of what we've done. People know when they're playing the Islanders that we're never dead.

"I thought in the third period Sunday they lost their poise. We were behind but somehow they felt the pressure."

Mike Bossy, who scored the tying goal in the fourth game, agreed. "Losing the two overtime games here was a bitter experience," he said. "But the way we lost, coming so close, we never stopped believing that we could win. And, what's more, Washington never stopped believing we could win."

That was never more evident than in game three Saturday night in the Nassau Coliseum. Leading the series 2-0, the Capitals played as if they trailed 2-0. They were tentative, unwilling to forecheck aggressively. The Islanders, discouraged and maybe even a little disheartened, were given a chance to get off the mat.

"Both those games at home were character games for us," Coach Al Arbour said. "Washington was the younger team, everyone kept talking about that. But we were the team that made the big plays in the third period. That tells you a lot about our guys."

The Islanders open the Patrick Division final in Philadelphia Thursday. Because the Flyers have won 19 of 20 games, because they finished the regular season 26 points ahead of the Islanders, because their opening-round series against the Rangers was a three-game sweep and not a five-game ordeal, Philadelphia will be the heavy favorite.

"We're used to that," Potvin said. "Every year we're counted out for a different reason and every year we're still around. Last year, we were an emotionally distraught team in the playoffs. We were an injured team. Yet, we still made it to the finals before anyone beat us."

Even those who have seen all the comebacks admitted incredulity after Tuesday's victory. Eddie Westfall, the Islanders' first captain and now their TV analyst, shook his head.

"I'm always amazed at these guys," he said. "They come up in situations where it would be okay in everyone's eyes if they got beat and they won't accept that. Something just keeps clicking . . .

"They play every game the same way and the opponent can't afford to make a mistake. Tonight, (Craig) Laughlin gave the puck away to (Anders) Kallur for the Islanders' first goal. But Bob Gould had as good a chance in the third period. What happens? Billy Smith makes the save -- somehow, makes the save."

Smith was the hero of game five with 39 saves. Trottier scored the winning goal in game four. But the biggest hero was Potvin, rejuvenated at 31, playing, in the words of Arbour, "like he used to when he was back in juniors."

And it was Potvin, an Islander for 12 years, who was asked if any other hockey team could have done what the Islanders did in this comeback. Potvin thought for a moment and looked up with a huge grin breaking across his face.

"No," he said, "No one else could have done this. Only the Islanders."