The noise was already so loud it seemed unlikely that the roof of Madison Square Garden would remain intact. One by one the victorious New York Rangers broke away from their handshakes with the stunned Washington Capitals and skated toward their locker room. Now, only two of them were still on the ice drinking in the cheers of manic fans.

Pierre Larouche was one and the other was John Vanbiesbrouck. The contrast was startling. Larouche, 30, has been through almost every up and down imaginable for a hockey player. He has sipped champagne from the Stanley Cup in Montreal and put down a beer or two during a frustrating stay in Hershey that didn't end until late January.

Vanbiesbrouck is 22 and knows none of this. He is just a kid, a goalie with a quick stick and no fear. Tonight, the old man and the kid combined to break the collective heart of the Capitals. It was Larouche who scored the New York goals tonight and Vanbiesbrouck who made them stand up for a 2-1 victory. It was Larouche who returned from the purgatory of Hershey on Jan. 25 to provide the offense this team needed. It was Vanbiesbrouck who made that offense mean something.

The long-suffering Rangers fans knew all this, and as Larouche and Vanbiesbrouck exited, they somehow became even louder. As he reached the edge of the ice, Vanbiesbrouck paused and shook his stick in the air triumphantly. Larouche just smiled at the kid's exuberance.

"I've never heard or seen anything like that in my life," Vanbiesbrouck said. "I've been to rock concerts and never heard anything like that. It was so emotional I had some tears in my eyes. We know how long it's been since the Rangers have given the fans something to get really excited about in this building.

"The fans want to be a part of this and I wanted them to be, too. That's why I shook my stick. The feeling just can't be described."

A few feet away, Larouche, in a much calmer, much more detached way, talked about his two goals, his seven in the playoffs and his comeback after a season that began in the minor leagues because first-year Coach Ted Sator didn't think he played enough defense.

"I never thought my defense was that bad," Larouche said softly. "Let's put it this way: I can sleep at night. I played on Stanley Cup teams in Montreal and there were times I wondered if I would ever get to this point again in my career. In Hershey, when we would go out at night for a beer, I would wonder how much longer I would be playing hockey."

He is now playing on a team that is in the semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs and he is a major reason. "There's no vindication, no," he said in response to a question. "Did I think this would ever happen? No. When they called me back up, I thought, 'What do they want me to do?' I just kept playing hockey."

Larouche has always been a maverick. He is star material with his dark good looks and his quick smile and quicker wit. But he was considered a rebel in Montreal and too much trouble in Hartford. He scored 48 goals here two years ago but was swept out by Sator's broad broom last fall. Now, Sator and the Rangers are thankful he is back.

"I get paid to play hockey, that's all it is," he said. "This is still a long way to go. It's just the division. It's great, a great feeling but let's not make that big a deal of it. The real hero is Johnny, anyway. With him playing the way he did we all felt like we always had a shot at this team."

Vanbiesbrouck was certainly the difference in the last two games of the series. He allowed the Capitals one goal in the last 116 minutes 26 seconds after they had scored 24 in the first four games plus 3:34 of Game 5.

"Early tonight, Johnny made a couple of real big saves and we knew he was on," said Bob Brooke, the hero of Game 4. "You just could look down the bench and know everyone was thinking, 'If we can get a couple, Johnny will do the rest.' "

Larouche got them and Johnny did do the rest. "But where would we be without Pierre?" Vanbiesbrouck asked rhetorically. "He's skating like a 20-year-old. He's reborn. He's the guy who makes things happen for us."

And Vanbiesbrouck kept them from happening to the Rangers. Did he think it was destiny? "No, it's not destiny. We just go out and play hockey and let destiny take care of itself."

Tonight, Vanbiesbrouck and Larouche made certain the Capitals' destiny was the same as it has been every spring since they started making the playoffs. And, they made certain it was very different from normal for the Rangers. Did the deafening crowd made this night comparable to winning a Stanley Cup for Larouche?

"Oh no," he said shaking his head. "There's no comparison." He stopped and grinned. "Not yet, anyway."

For the old man, it was a big step, just a step. For the kid, it was something to tell the grandchildren about. Combined, they made it a night of sweet joy that New York will remember for a long, long time.