They started leaving with 6:09 left to play. You could see them rising from their seats and walking gingerly out, their backs to the ice. Rather like blood from a fresh cut, they were just a trickle at first; the gush didn't come until later. They weren't going to get beer and they weren't stopping in the lobby to register for next year's 10-game package. They couldn't Save The Caps on Friday night, so they saved themselves. They went home.

The Washington Capitals, who have never won anything, are again not winning something. They're not winning a playoff series they're supposed to win against a team they outpointed by 29 over the course of the regular season. And they're not winning it because they're not winning games they're supposed to win, games in which they have two-goal leads. The Capitals had two-goal leads in Game 1, twice in Game 4 and once again in Game 5, and lost every time -- hardly what you'd expect from the NHL's second-best defense. "We have to be concerned about that," Mike Gartner said in the understatement of the month.

For the third time in the franchise's history, the Capitals have reached the fork in the road. Choose wisely and perhaps you find fame and glory. But choose poorly and you stumble through uncertainty and gloom. Thus far the Capitals are zero for 2 in explicitly critical games -- games that by themselves can shape an entire season, if not the franchise itself: Last year (after blowing a two-goal lead in Game 4) they lost Game 5 and the playoffs to the Islanders. Three weeks ago, in the last game of the regular season, the Capitals again gave back a two-goal lead and lost the division championship in Philadelphia. In New York tonight, the Capitals face elimination from the playoffs by the Rangers, a team that couldn't win half its games this season. The cruelest word in sports lasts five letters, beginning with "c" and ending with "e." Another tepid spin of the wheel, and the Capitals will have solved the puzzle.

Should the Capitals win this one, they would have to do it again on Tuesday night in Capital Centre. Their backs aren't just to the sea, all their toes are in the water. Echoing MacArthur, Bryan Murray vowed they would return. "We will be back here Tuesday night, I can assure you of that." You'd hear much the same from the players. Scott Stevens, Craig Laughlin and Mike Gartner were confident that the Capitals still would win. They had simply been unlucky so far, victims of some bad bounces, but not outplayed; heavens no! Stevens refused to give the Rangers any credit. "Why should I?" he demanded. "We're doing it to ourselves." Laughlin, as irrepressible as ever, crowed: "We've got more character than they do. We've outplayed them every game. We don't just think we're the better team; we are the better team." Gartner as well celebrated his team's "character," its ability to rebound quickly from defeat. "People are writing us off now, but that's when we play our best hockey. Don't write the Washington Capitals off," he warned almost ominously. "There's a lot of character here."

In the last two seasons, we have heard a lot about character and a lot about the Stanley Cup from these Capitals. We haven't raised their expectations. They have raised ours. Nobody is writing them off. They are playing their way out of The Cup. Character is fine and dandy but the Rangers have character, too. Let's stop talking about character and start talking about holding on to the two-goal leads. "That's the key thing," David Poile, Capitals general manager, said worriedly. "Our history has dictated that when we get ahead we win most of the time. But instead of being a rallying point, it now seems to be our nemesis." In each of the last five games the Capitals have failed to win -- a tie with the Rangers in the next-to-last game of the regular season, the loss the next night to Philadelphia, and these three playoff losses to the Rangers -- they have dissipated two-goal leads.

How much is enough with this team? "All of a sudden we get up two and we start playing like we're afraid to make mistakes," Dave Christian said. "We get tentative." Shaking his head in frustration, Christian said, "For some reason we're not playing like the Washington Capitals."

Why not? Perhaps because the Capitals are uncomfortable with having a clear path to the Stanley Cup finals. In every playoff series prior to this one, they had been the underdogs -- even this year against the Islanders, the Capitals seemed the psychological underdogs. But now, having finally vanquished the Islanders, and having seen the Rangers eliminate the Flyers, the Capitals have ascended to the favorite on their side of the draw. Their comfort zone is gone. The burden of proof is upon them. "We've never really been in that situation before, and I don't know that we've handled it very well," Christian admitted.

When Gartner proclaims how the Capitals play better when people "write them off," what he's observing is that the group responds better behaviorally as the underdog than the favorite. By facing elimination, the Capitals have maneuvered themselves right where they want to be. Should they lose, they'll have spit the bit again; nothing new. But should they win, those front-running fans who bolted early on Friday night will owe them a thunderous apology.