To the Capitals and Washingtonians hooked on hockey, Bill Smith is a crank phone call at 3 a.m. He is a flat tire on the Beltway in rush hour, income tax, week-old oatmeal, and crabgrass on life's lawn. Only Roger Staubach has climbed higher on the area's sporting hate meter.

So it was jubilation -- and shock -- that greeted Smith seeming more like a befuddled minor-league first baseman than a near-legendary playoff goalie Thursday night in Capital Centre.

This once, he was an Islander alone in frustration.

"Billllleeeeee . . . Billlleeeee . . . Billllleee" the crowd chanted after each of four Capitals popped the puck by Smith. The chant even started after Washington scored with Smith on the bench in the final 15 seconds, it being no fun at all to yell:

"Emmmmpteeee."

Anytime Smith can be humbled is cause for celebration by the opposition, for the very good reason that after Stanley Cup games, he usually leaves the pond with head high and smiling.

The puck usually stops at his feet.

That gold chain with the large number one and four diamonds around his neck verifies Smith's long-term excellence. It was not hanging at half-staff after the Capitals' 5-2 victory Thursday.

An entire regular season and two playoffs have put Washington in exactly the same position as last year at this time: ahead in the best-of-five series but not yet a winner.

With eight goals the last two nights, the Capitals have a total of 59 in their postseason history. That is six more than Denis Potvin has scored all by his lonesome in the playoffs.

That is the essence of this series: the Capitals are swatting at ghosts. Large and swift ones who still carry a mystique. The most imposing is Smith, who in the fifth game here a year ago made it seem as though Al Arbour had uprooted the Washington Monument and plopped it in front of the Islanders' goal.

Last night, Smith was more mattress than puck-smothering mountain. Shots kept bouncing off his pads. Or whistling by his glove. Or being bunted past him.

Gaetan Duchesne might be unfamiliar with the suicide squeeze, but that is exactly what his form suggested when he scored the Capitals' first goal.

The puck was waist high after Smith deflected a shot by Scott Stevens early in the first period. Needing a perfect placement a few feet from where he was standing, Duchesne lifted his stick parallel to the ice and ticked the puck home.

The next two goals seemed Smith's fault. He stuck his glove in the general direction of shots by Greg Smith and Stevens but grabbed only air. Appearances were deceiving, Smith insisted.

Even he can't stop what he can't see. Islander Smith was screened on Capital Smith's goal that lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 lead early in the second period.

The third goal was the crusher, for it came just nine seconds after New York pulled to a 2-2 tie. Stevens wound up and let fly. Like a hell-bent soldier near a live grenade, defenseman Randy Boyd tried to help Smith by diving into the puck as it left Stevens' stick.

All he did was turn Smith's task from difficult to impossible.

"It [the puck] went from the middle of the net to the right upper corner," Smith said. "By the time I saw it, it was in the net."

Smith argued that Bob Gould's goal, which bumped Washington's lead to 4-2, should not have counted "because he kicked it in."

"The puck came off me," Smith said. "He kicked it and then took me into the net. What can you do?" In truth, a teammate, trying to be helpful, pushed Gould into Smith.

"One of those things," Smith said.

He was more resigned than upset, calm and cooperative not long after walking to the locker room with "Billlleeee" still echoing through the arena.

He and the Islanders have been on this path before: bogged early in a series, brilliant the rest of the way.

"It's not hard [to figure how to sweep the Capitals]," Smith said. "One game at a time. What we have to keep in mind is one game at a time. Good sound hockey.

"Some of our guys are trying to do too much. Like diving in front of shots. If they miss, it's a total screen in front of me. If they hold their ground, like Washington . . . Pete [Peeters] sees everything."

The possibility of his being benched for Game 3 in New York Saturday exists, he admitted, "because he [Kelly Hrudey] is playing well. He [Arbour] might alternate."

Smith was 1-2-1 in his last five regular season starts; Hrudey was 3-1-1 before losing the Patrick Division opener here Wednesday. The Islanders are 2-12 in their last 14 away playoff games.

Smith did not acknowledge the chants.

"You don't even hear it when you're playing," he said. "You're so intent. It's frustrating, but we've been in this position before. This team has a knack of putting itself in [a backs-to-the-wall] position.

"Hope we can get out of it."

As Smith experienced once again, luck is active on the ice. Being thoughtful and in correct position is not always useful.

But then logic sometimes is foreign to the NHL. This is the league that plays 80 games to eliminate five teams. Then it makes sure either the fifth- (the Islanders) or third-best team (the Capitals) will be eliminated in the opening round.