Denis Potvin knew it was coming. When you are responsible for breaking the leg of a star you can hardly expect a hug and a kiss upon entering the enemy arena.

"I expected the boos," said the Islanders captain, whose check on March 28 left the Washington Capitals without the services of center Bengt Gustafsson. "There was no doubt that the people would react that way. But my primary job is to play and I had to block that out."

If the boos that rained down on him every time he touched the puck didn't surprise him, the way his team played did. The Capitals managed to shed their nervousness more quickly than the New York Islanders shed their sluggishness and went on to win, 3-1, last night in the first game of the Patrick Division semifinals in front of 18,130 at Capital Centre.

"We didn't seem to have the playoff drive that we expect ourselves to have," said Potvin, the 13-year veteran. "We have to pick up the pace. We were a little sluggish. We picked it up in the third period, but by then the other team has confidence. And once they get in that kind of a groove, they can't believe that they're going to lose. We have to break that early tomorrow."

The Islanders will try to avoid returning home after Game 2 tonight down 2-0 in the best-of-five series. One thing that the Islanders are hoping for is a different performance out of Capitals goalie Pete Peeters, who was just short of sensational.

"We have to beat him," Potvin said. "It's now a matter of facing a guy with confidence again."

Islanders Coach Al Arbour credited Peeters, but also had compliments for his goalie, Kelly Hrudey.

"Kelly made some key saves," Arbour said. "It's just too bad we didn't give him more support. We just struggled and couldn't generate anything. We came on later, and that's a good sign."

The Islanders have beaten Washington in the playoffs in each of the last three years. In 1985, the Islanders were down, 2-0, before winning three straight, so it wasn't terribly surprising when Arbour said he wasn't particularly disturbed by the loss.

"All that matters is winning three games," said Arbour, who wouldn't say whether he will use Hrudey or Bill Smith -- a usual subject of derision when the Islanders are in Capital Centre -- for Game 2.

The Capitals had the weight of history on their backs, having lost to the Islanders in the last three years, and they seemed tight. But it was an Islanders mistake that set up the first goal of the game. Ken Morrow had the puck at his own blueline but it was stolen by Doug Gould, who nudged it ahead to Dave Christian on the left wing. Christian, a right wing, skated a few strides, stopped at the face-off circle, turned and hit Gaetan Duchesne coming in on the right. Hrudey got his glove on the shot, but not enough of it and the Capitals led, 1-0.

The lead lasted about six minutes. Bob Bassen fed Clark Gilles, who shot right off the pass. It appeared to catch Peeters off stride.

By the third period, however, the Capitals had gone up by 3-1. Craig Laughlin centered from behind the Islanders net. Jorgen Pettersson's backhand was stopped by Hrudey, but the rebound fell in the crease to the open side. Potvin tried to clear, but Christian got there in time to swat it home.

After that it was Peeters, who came up with some brillant saves under pressure.

"Sometimes, he can get rattled, but tonight he didn't," Islanders forward Bob Bourne said. "He can press too hard sometimes, but that's only because he tries to be a perfectionist. But if they are always leading, he's going to be very tough to beat."