Silver balloons floated in the room, stamped "Get Well Soon." A card accompanied some flowers: "We Miss You, Daddy -- Drew, Tucker and Nicole." But perhaps nobody misses Rod Langway more than his teammates.

The Washington Capitals must face the New York Islanders, the team with the best record in the National Hockey League, without their team captain tonight at Capital Centre. And nobody knows how many other nights they will be without him.

Langway was confined to a bed at George Washington University Hospital yesterday for treatment of a ruptured disk, receiving medication that hopefully will reduce the inflammation, facilitate movement and permit him to get back on the ice.

In an interview at the hospital yesterday, he said he hopes his return will be sooner than some doomsayers have predicted, with dark forecasts extending to eight weeks and beyond.

"People have been calling my wife at home, asking her when I'm having my operation {which has not been considered}," Langway said. "Actually, I'm just lying here while they give me medication. There's no way I could stay on my back at home with my three kids, and they can control the medication better here.

"I get my next physical Monday and then I'll see what the doctor says, whether I take another step forward or go back a step. I might get to go home or I might be put on other medication.

"If my movement tests Monday go all right, maybe I can start some rehabilitation -- movement for flexibility, that kind of thing. Then I could start taking whirlpools and at least be up and around. After that, it would be up to me, to get up and skate and get back out there."

A hospital room can be a busy place, but Langway's was busier than most. Within a half hour yesterday, teammates John Barrett and Greg Adams paid a visit, nurses switched beds -- the better to accommodate Langway's 6-foot-4 frame -- a reporter stopped by to chat, two other nurses said goodbye at the end of a shift change and a maintenance man came in to measure the window.

"I sleep as much as I can -- I suppose the drugs have something to do with that," Langway said. "When I'm awake, I'm kept busy answering the phone and I watch cartoons. I'm not on a diet, so I can eat anything and I was glad somebody brought me a cheeseburger and fries today."

Langway lay on the bed wearing nothing but a pair of Capitals shorts. There were no pulleys, IV bottles or other usual signs of hospitalization.

"It's in my lower back, and it would take too much weight for traction to do any good," Langway said. "I've had spasms before, but nothing like this. There's a constant numbness and, if I move just right, there's a burning sensation in the buttocks. I guess that's good -- when Smitty {Greg Smith} had his problems last year, he had numbness all the way to the toes."

Langway has missed 15 games in six seasons here and he was asked if he knew the team's record (9-4-2) without him.

"No, but it must be pretty good or you wouldn't be laughing," he replied. "I hope they keep it going. It won't be easy against the Islanders. They've got a good club and good young players. {Pat} LaFontaine is off to a good year and {goalie} Kelly Hrudey is playing well. I'd rather be out there playing than lying here, but it's one of those things. I just hope it's over in a hurry."

For now, Langway can only lie in bed and hope he gets to watch tonight's game on television. Without a cable hookup at the hospital, he was counting on friends to secure a special line for his fifth-floor room before game time.

Langway is not the only absentee. Smith will be missing from the Washington defense tonight. Smith, who suffered a severely bruised larynx when he was struck by a stick Tuesday, was discharged from Georgetown University Hospital yesterday and stopped by the team's practice session. However, he has been forbidden physical exercise until Monday.

This will be the Islanders' first visit to Capital Centre since they prevailed in that four-overtime game in April that ended the Capitals' season. Appropriately, the only previous meeting this fall went into overtime at Nassau Coliseum, New York winning by 4-3.

"We aren't placing any special emphasis on last year's playoffs," said Capitals Coach Bryan Murray. "That's in the past. They are ahead of us {by nine points} and we want to shut down a couple of people on their hockey team {LaFontaine and Mikko Makela}. We want to win some hockey games and start playing more consistently."

Murray said he was surprised by the ease with which the Islanders handled the Penguins in Pittsburgh Wednesday (7-1) after the Capitals managed only one point in two weekend contests with Pittsburgh.

"It's obvious the Islanders have four good lines and six defensemen," Murray said. "They're playing exceptional hockey at this point. They made changes at the right time and they have a lot of good, young players coming through for them."