The room was dark. But for flickering from a wide-screen television, Rod Langway would have gone completely unnoticed. Like many another fan, he was nursing a beer and reclining on a couch -- gliding about the ice with the Capitals only in his mind.

"He'd probably have been better off going in {to George Washington Hospital} tonight," Coach Bryan Murray said later, "but he wanted to be here, and to see us."

Langway had watched his buddies beat Edmonton a few steps from where Murray was talking, inside the players' lounge across the hall from the dressing quarters in Capital Centre. He had slipped away, without comment, just as the 4-2 victory was completed.

Probably, the news that he would be hospitalized with a ruptured disk in his back hit Langway as hard as it hit any of his fellow Capitals or their faithful. For a while in these situations, uncertainty is worse than pain.

"This is really going to be hard for him," Murray realized. "Seeing us play and him not available. He was at the optional skate Sunday, for about an hour and a half. I thought, 'Boy, maybe he's going to feel better, loosen up.' He tried again Monday, but left after 15 or 20 minutes."

In the 1980s, only Mark Moseley and Joe Theismann have risen above Langway in athletic Washington. They were most valuable players in the National Football League; he was the best defenseman in the National Hockey League the year after he arrived here, 1983, and again the next season.

"The first image of Langway," said General Manager David Poile, "is that he's always there on the ice. Killing a penalty; in the last minutes of a period; in the last minutes of a game, with everything on the line."

"One of the first things that went through my mind when I was traded {to the Capitals in June}," said goalie Clint Malarchuk, "was that I'd be getting Rod Langway playing defense in front of me.

"You know a Langway probably is going to make some saves himself, and prevent a lot of plays that would put the goaltender {in danger of having to make a save from point-blank range}.

"He knows what to do; he knows where to go. Nobody gets tap-ins in front {of the net} with him on the ice."

Nobody knows how long the 30-year-old Langway will be away from the ice. A team press release said: "A further update on {his} condition will be announced in 7-10 days."

That would mean an absence even of any firm diagnosis for about four more games, or six in all since Langway left the ice against Boston eight days ago. He missed only 12 games in five-plus seasons prior to this injury.

Langway's is an enormous presence, on the ice and off.

"The pillar," Malarchuk said. "So steady."

"The holler guy in the room," Murray said. "The work guy on the ice. A stabilizing force . . . the cornerstone of our hockey team."

"Who you think of at the mention of work ethic," said Scott Stevens.

"Everybody gives a little bit extra," said Mike Gartner. "He gives it on a consistent basis."

Poile said there was optimism for Langway, based on the fact that "this is the first back injury of any type in his career." On the other hand, Mike Bossy of the Islanders is sitting out the season with a disk injury and there has been considerable speculation that his career may be over.

"I had some problems, two or three years back, no pun intended," Gartner said. "Just for two or three weeks. Nagging. Nagging. Nagging. Finally, it just went away."

That's possible with Langway. A prominent orthopedist familiar with professional sports said 80 percent of back injuries are cured without surgery.

"He may be fine in a week or two or three," said the surgeon, who declined to be named because he was not privy to the specifics with Langway. "I have three or four {disk} cases a day; only one in 10 needs surgery."

If Langway wants to brighten his spirits, the name he should consider is not Mike Bossy but Joe Montana, referred to in his team's press guide as the "heroic and fabled trigger-man of the 49ers' offense."

Montana ascended into this supernatural state by returning to action two months after disk surgery last season. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals that day.

"Hockey is 100 times tougher than football, in terms of what Rod Langway has to do compared to Joe Montana," Poile insists. "Even the gyrations are more in hockey, going forward and backward, left and right."

It's true enough that quarterbacks might go an entire game without their jersey being so much as smudged, while hockey defensemen get clobbered every few seconds on the ice.

Still, eight days after that return to duty, Montana took a wicked lick against the Redskins in RFK Stadium -- and survived quite nicely. Football turf and hockey boards seem about equally unforgiving.

Langway also might dwell on this: Mitch Kupchak had two back operations, one during his college career at North Carolina, and played well at the highest levels of basketball. It was a serious knee injury that finally ended his NBA career.

The Redskins' Pat Fischer, maybe the feistiest NFL defender of them all, also was very effective after his second back operation. Lee Trevino, who needed disk surgery in 1976 after being struck by lightning, won $310,000 swinging golf clubs Sunday afternoon.

There is no intention here to belittle the potential seriousness of Langway's injury. But backs are fickle. Sometimes they slip into place again, seemingly on whim.

"I've always said he's not the most talented defender, but the hardest-working one," said Poile, whose first major act as Capitals general manager was to acquire Langway from Montreal. "This is another test {of his determination}."

The idea now, Rod, is to work at resting.