It could come from Mike Gartner, Bob Carpenter or Bill Smith. An appearance by any of that trio in the starting lineups tonight ought to be good for an emotional point or two as the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders renew their annual rite of spring at Capital Centre.

Gartner and Carpenter braced their injured knees yesterday for a possible appearance tonight in the opening game of the best-of-five Patrick Division semifinal. The final decision in each case will not be made until game time, according to Capitals Coach Bryan Murray.

"It depends on how they feel and if they can play," Murray said. "If they can't play, it's no good to them or us to put them out there."

Should either feel strong enough to play -- and both participated in yesterday's practice at Mount Vernon -- the reaction from the home crowd doubtless would give the Capitals an emotional lift.

Meanwhile, in Hicksville, N.Y., Islanders Coach Al Arbour said that Monday's announcement had been superseded and he would not choose between Smith and Kelly Hrudey as his starting goaltender until this morning. Arbour's change of mind was less of a surprise than the original news that he intended to tip his hand ahead of time.

"I'm not going to announce it until Wednesday ," Arbour said. "That's when I'll tell them. I'm not concerned. I have confidence in both. Either one can do the job."

Since Smith has been the Islanders' main man through the years and has been the key to three straight playoff defeats of Washington, no doubt his presence would have an influence on both teams.

Still, he has been erratic down the stretch this season, and because Hrudey seemed to get a larger share of the work at yesterday's practice, longtime Arbour watchers figured Hrudey would be the man.

If so, it would mean a matchup of goalies who played their junior hockey in Medicine Hat, Alberta, because Washington's nominee is Pete Peeters, 28, who toiled at Medicine Hat a few seasons before Hrudey, 25.

The Capitals indicated no concern over Arbour's choice, and Gaetan Duchesne said, "I don't care which guy it is. If they put Smith in, we just have to beat him. The big thing for us is to be disciplined. If we start screaming at the ref, or if we scream at anybody, it will throw us off our game."

Murray, who figures to do enough screaming for everybody, was careful to say nothing that could be used as a psychological lever by Arbour.

"Bill Smith has been very successful against us and on that basis he could be a confidence factor for the Islanders," Murray said. "He's a very competitive person, a battler with experience. He upgrades his play in the playoffs. You have to score on him. He doesn't give you much.

"We have done a lot of preparation for both goaltenders, knowing full well we'll face both at some time during the series."

Murray was hoping the presence of Carpenter and Gartner would work as a stimulus to some marginal players who might find themselves on the bench if either should return Thursday or later.

"I hope the players can see them, realize they're close to coming back, and accept it as an incentive to retaining their own jobs," Murray said. "For us, it's a matter of getting a couple of wins early and knowing they'll come back to make a contribution."

The first game is pivotal, considering the brevity of the series and the Capitals' desire to retain the home-ice advantage they earned by finishing 17 points ahead of the Islanders during the regular season.

"Even with no injuries, it would still be important to get off to a good start," said Larry Murphy, Washington's best defenseman over the last dozen games, with 14 points and a plus-10 rating. "Maybe it means even more now, with the guys we're missing. We want to get right on top of them."

Asked which he considered more significant, the Capitals' success against the Islanders this season or the past playoff results, Capitals right wing-center Dave Christian said, "Maybe we have to think a little about both. We want to remember that we played fairly well against them this year and we want to forget that we haven't beaten them in the playoffs.

"But we don't want to forget completely that we've started out pretty well each year in the playoffs and haven't been able to finish them off. This year we want to finish them."

Carpenter and Gartner appropriately wore gray jerseys yesterday, along with temporary linemate David Jensen, and they were not spared from any drills.

"It's a little sore, but I feel pretty good," said Carpenter, who suffered a hyperextended knee Sunday. "I'll wait and see in the morning. I hope it doesn't swell up."

Gartner said his surgically repaired knee felt "a little better" yesterday than it did Monday, when he skated for the first time since his March 28 operation.

Jensen arrived from Binghamton and looked good enough to play, although a sore wrist kept him out of the Whalers' last seven games. General Manager David Poile was sufficiently impressed that afterward, he returned center Grant Martin to Binghamton. Martin had been called up when center Bengt Gustafsson, who watched practice on crutches, suffered a broken leg.

The Islanders yesterday summoned forwards Alan Kerr and Bob Bassen from their Springfield farm club. With Roger Kortko, Mikko Makela and Mark Hamway out with injuries, either Kerr or Bassen figures to play tonight on a fourth line with Clark Gillies and one of the Islanders' seven defensemen.