The bugle began "Taps" with 77 seconds remaining; white towels fluttering and sustained cheering quickly followed. Still, serious Capitals fans left with a touch of realism behind their smiles. Anything else with the Islanders as the playoff opposition is known as dreaming on thin ice.

Victory was nice -- and necessary -- last night. How it happened could not have been scripted more emotionally by the crew that concocted some of The Gipper's old films.

Two of the heroes were supposed to be spectators most of the game, which meant that the Capitals figured to be even shakier against the New York gang they melted against at full strength last year.

Bobby Carpenter, Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson missing is somewhat like the Orioles batting order without Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and Fred Lynn. Or the Celtics without Larry Bird.

Carpenter and Gartner may have sensed this. More likely, they are tough guys who always give Abe Pollin full value. Anyway, they had serious talks with their knees and coaxed them onto the ice.

Joints can be fickle and contrary. Gartner felt he would play about 24 hours before the game began; Carpenter was certain about 24 minutes before the opening faceoff.

"I was a little leery," said Gartner, whose left knee was operated on less than two weeks ago. "I could skate fine. I could shoot fine. But contact had me worried."

"I was still up in the air [about playing] this morning," said Carpenter, whose right knee was hyperextended in the loss to the Flyers Sunday. "But the doctors said I couldn't do any more damage by playing.

"So I decided to, just before the game, after the swelling had gone down. It was a matter of controlling the pain, which was pretty bad. But these are the playoffs."

Whatever surprise the Islanders may have experienced by Carpenter and Gartner playing was no greater than Carpenter and Gartner felt over the lucky conspiracy that provided Washington's go-ahead goal.

Midway through the second period, Carpenter was minding his own business in front of the Islanders goal when what should appear but the puck.

Spinning lazily at his feet, all but begging to be tapped into the net. Even better, the fellow minding that net, Kelly Hrudey, was flat on the ice.

"I don't know how it got there," said Carpenter, supporting himself on his good leg, his gimpy knee iced and bandaged. "I saw Hrudey fall. All I was trying to do was make sure I hit the net.

"I saw the whole thing open up." Here he smiled. "I still was close to the post."

Gartner is not quite certain how he got the puck to his buddy in such a can't-miss position.

"Just redirected it to the middle," he said. "Then I got pushed. Never got to see what happened after that."

What happened after the Capitals got that 2-1 was a lot of flailing and silly-looking scenes. A Capital and Islander were immediately banished to the penalty box for roughing.

Six seconds later, Washington's Kevin Hatcher and New York's Greg Gilbert had the only serious fight of the penalty-marred game. The rest of the stuff was mainly ill-humored hugging.

When Hatcher and Gilbert stopped flailing, three players from each team were entwined and face down on the ice. It may have been serious to them; it was ludicrous to nearly everyone else.

Six adults with their arms around one another and their faces biting ice chips. Equipment scattered nearby. It looked like the 37th day of a dance marathon.

So intent were the players that the fussing failed to end when the game did. Rod Langway and the Islanders' Clark Gillies struggled toward some overtime action cooler teammates prevented.

Round two is tonight.

Carpenter and Gartner are hopeful of being able to answer the bell, although only their knees know for certain.

"I more or less decided [Tuesday] that I'd play," Gartner said. "It was a matter of how much. I thought I might get in two or three shifts. It ended up a few more.

"I feel good."

"If this was the regular season," Carpenter admitted, "I honestly don't think I'd have played. Maybe a power-play shift, but nothing regular."

For Coach Bryan Murray, the unexpected pleasure was Carpenter on the ice and the Capitals with a two-goal lead with a minute left to play.

"Tough . . . A long game," Carpenter said. "A little bit of pain, but you've got to play with pain."

Was he concerned about postgame swelling?

"We'll see what happens," he said.

Same with Gartner.

Nearby, crutches supporting him, the third wounded Capital was smiling. Gustafsson also wanted badly to play, but teams are allotted only so many miracles.