When a hockey team plods through the tunnel toward the ice, the goalie leads the way. He is, after all, the one man who can dominate a game. He is also the one most likely to face embarrassment, even humiliation.

Billy Smith has been through the ritual in Stanley Cup playoff games more than any other goalie of his era. Ten days ago he destroyed the psyche of the Washington Capitals, stopping 39 of their shots to send them home from the playoffs.

He has done this act for years. He did it while the New York Islanders were winning four Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983. He did it again last year when a wounded Islanders team managed to reach the final for a fifth straight season. And he did it again against the Capitals this season.

But Tuesday night, Billy Smith couldn't do it.

Down by 2-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers in their Patrick Division final series, the Islanders returned home, knowing they had to win in the Nassau Coliseum to keep any reasonable hopes alive. These have always been the moments when Smith seems to rise to another level.

Not Tuesday. Four times in two periods, the Flyers beat him. One of the goals came on the kind of backhand shot he ordinarily would kick aside with one glove tied behind his back. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't Smith.

"Three of the goals were on breakaways, guys in alone on me," he said. "I got a piece of them, but they went in the net. That's all that matters."

No one knows better than Smith that the bottom line is what matters. And so, when Coach Al Arbour came to him between the second and third periods to tell him he was changing goalies, Smith understood.

"It was frustrating," Smith said. "But Al thought it was best for the team. Whatever is best for the team, I support totally."

The change didn't matter. Kelly Hrudey had little work to handle in Smith's place, but the Islanders couldn't get the tying goal. Now, they trail the Flyers, 3-0, with Game 4 to be played Thursday night.

Arbour's decision Tuesday must be seen as a signal. Although he waved it off as being nothing more than "something I did to try to give the guys a boost," Arbour and all his players know it was more than that.

"Over the years Billy's won some big ones for us outright," General Manager Bill Torrey said before Tuesday's game. "He's a special kind of competitor."

When you concede that your best competitor can't get it done, something goes out of a team. Denis Potvin, the team captain, once said that playing a big game with Smith in the net was "like going out in the cold knowing you have a parka on."

"What makes Smitty special is his emotional involvement with things," said Glenn (Chico) Resch, Smith's goaltending partner with the Islanders in 1975-81. "There's no in-between with him. He doesn't accept the notion that it's okay to play well and lose. He only understands one thing: winning and losing. It's all black and white to him. He's that way off the ice, too. If he likes you, he'll do anything for you. If he doesn't, forget it; don't bother asking him for anything."

In pursuit of victory, Smith has become hockey's No. 1 villain. Some criticism has been fair. Some hasn't. In 1983, Edmonton Coach Glen Sather, Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the Oilers blamed Smith's use of his stick for their inability to beat him.

"That whole thing was very unfair," Torrey said. "I'm not saying Billy's always been right and I'm not saying we haven't talked to him about the way he plays over the years, but that was just unfair."

Most unfair perhaps was the media's treatment of Smith after he tripped Gretzky with his stick late in Game 2. Gretzky flew through the air as if diving off a building and earned a penalty. Smith had no problem with that: "It's part of the game. He made a smart play."

But he was upset later when Gretzky called the play dirty and went so far as to say that a greater power -- "up above" -- would get even with Smith for his sins.

"Gretzky had a chance to clear me and he didn't," Smith said. "That bothered me. I lost some respect for him because of it."

Smith likes to say that wearing the black hat doesn't really bother him, that he accepts it. But when he talks about it, some hurt is obvious.

Like many tough players, his off-ice persona is very different than on ice. Once, he wore a dark beard. Now, he has only a mustache and a year-old hairpiece that makes him look younger. He talks proudly of sons Chad, 10, and Corey, 9.

Teammates say that, although they know to stay clear of Smith on game day, he seems to show up when they need him most. Bob Bourne, whose son was born five years ago with spina bifida, remembers Smith coming to him and asking if there was anything he could do to help. "And he's kept on asking through the years," Bourne said.

Once, Smith's disdain for the media -- and theirs for him -- was ever present. Now, though, he is cooperative. This season, the New York media voted him its "Good Guy Award."

"I've always said that if someone will be half-fair with me, I'll be totally fair with them," he said. "I have a tendency to say exactly what I think, and sometimes people don't like that."

Resch, who now plays for the New Jersey Devils, figured out quickly how to get along with Smith when they played together. "There are certain things with Smitty you just don't talk about," he said. "I never tried to talk to him about the stick swinging.

"Smitty is an innocent, really. The way he looks at things; he's just out there trying to win a game. If someone comes in his crease, well, to him it's kill or be killed. He can't understand it when people get upset with him for that. To him, he's just reacting in a competitive situation."

But Thursday, he might not get on the ice, except during warmups. He has not beaten the Flyers since 1982 (0-7-2). Arbour might go with Hrudey, who has done well this season. Asked how he would react to not starting, Smith shrugged, "The thought hadn't even occurred to me," he said.

If it happens, if Smith does sit and if the Islanders do lose, it might mark the end of an era. Smith, it should be remembered, has been written off more often than Richard Nixon and has always come back. But at 34?

"As long as I can play the game well," he said, "and continue to make good money ($250,000 annually with three years left on his contract), I'll keep playing. When I'm through, the important thing to me is that I'll be financially comfortable, able to take care of my family. What people think of me after I stop playing doesn't really matter to me. Five years after I quit, most people won't even remember me. People will say, 'The Islanders won four straight Cups; who was the goalie?' "