Bill Smith, possible New York Islanders starter and perpetual Washington Capitals nemesis, spent some time yesterday afternoon explaining a complex man: Bill Smith.

It was a tough job, he knew, but somebody had to do it.

"My wife has said to me several times that I have two separate personalities," said the goaltender who has eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs the past three seasons. "Look at it this way. I do not have an amazing amount of talent. When I came into the league, I didn't have a big contract. I was a fifth- or sixth-round draft choice, which is unheard-of now.

"I didn't have a lot going for me, except determination. Okay, I've got some talent. You have to have talent to be in the NHL. But that wasn't it. If it's anything, it's my drive and desire. How bad do you want it? I want it bad."

Bill Smith loves hockey in the springtime. Anyone who watched him in the final game of the Capitals-Islanders playoff series a year ago knows it. That evening, he stopped 39 shots to lead the Islanders to a 2-1 upset victory at Capital Centre. One save was made by Smith's left hip.

"Right position at the right time," Smith recalled.

"He just couldn't miss," Capitals goaltender Al Jensen said yesterday. "He must have thought the puck was as big as a beach ball."

It's safe to say that Smith's performance in that series still strikes a measure of fear in the hearts of the Capitals, who open the playoffs tonight against the Islanders for the fourth consecutive season.

Smith is the player the Capitals talk about, think about, perhaps even have nightmares about.

But, ironically, he very well might not be the player they will shoot at tonight.

Islanders Coach Al Arbour has a choice. He can start 25-year-old Kelly Hrudey, who was third in the league in goals-against average (3.21), had a 19-15-8 record and played very well as the season wore on.

Or he can start Smith, 35, who gave up an average of 3.72 goals (including nine Sunday against New Jersey), had a 20-14-4 record and goes wild in the playoffs.

"There is a very good chance Kelly will start," Smith said. "It's got to be in Al's mind who was better at the end. If he picks me, it will probably be because of the playoff stuff."

The playoff stuff: During the '80s, there has not been a better playoff goalie, said Warren Strelow, Washington's goaltender coach.

"His play has not been equaled," Strelow said. "He's the premier playoff goaltender."


"When a team really needs you, really relies on you, it brings out the best in me. All year long, you rotate," Smith said, shrugging. "But in the playoffs, they put it in your hands. 'Here.' If you lose, it's your fault. If you win, you get the credit. When a team is counting on you, when it's no longer routine, certain guys like that. And I'm one of them."

If you were to hold a popularity contest at Capital Centre, ranking opposing players, Smith almost certainly would finish dead last. The goal crease is his turf, and he doesn't like trespassers. He wields a mean stick. He won't pass up a fight.

"If guys want to run at me, I'll fight back," Smith said. "They better be ready to accept the consequences. I'm a stationary thing; I can't leave my net. So, naturally, I'm going to protect myself."

Almost plaintively, he continued: "I've got a wife and kids. I'm a survivalist."

It's confusing to hear Bill Smith tell his story the day before the game in the sun-splashed lobby of the Islanders' suburban Maryland hotel.

A pianist in a tuxedo is playing nearby. Smith, in a sport coat, is quiet and courteous. A soft smile turns his mustache crooked. This is not a slashing, taunting goalie. This is not a hated man.

"You do what you have to do to win," he said. "That's what this is. A money game."

Like most athletes, Smith said he doesn't listen to the fans. "They don't bother me. There are not too many buildings I can go into nowadays where I am liked. I've been called just about anything a player can be called. It just rolls off of me."

Smith knows he becomes much more disagreeable when the playoffs roll around. It's a time when he said he feels more important, when he "gets away with more things."

In practice during the playoffs, he doesn't have to work as hard, he said. For example, no one makes him skate around to stay in shape.

"If I were taking the puck from end to end and scoring goals, okay, I'll skate. But I'm not," he said. A footnote: Smith is the only NHL goaltender to ever score a goal (in 1979).

"I'm pampered during the playoffs. My moodiness is overlooked. I do what I want to do and get the hell off the ice. It sounds strange, but maybe the playoffs just bring out the kid in you."

It's impossible to pin Smith down on his favorite playoff moment. The fifth game in 1985, silencing a raucous crowd again and again?

"There have been too many to say," he said. "That fifth game was probably the biggest moment of last year. But we won four Stanley Cups in a row. There have been a lot of great moments. I just hope they keep coming."

Smith has two more years remaining on his contract with the Islanders, and figures he's good for another couple of years after that.

But, for now, the future is tonight. After all, there are springtime hockey games to be played.

"The playoffs are a 1 1/2-month thing," Smith said. "In that 1 1/2 months, you don't get tired. Oh, you get tired, but not tired. Know what I mean?

"It's a crazy feeling."