Washington Capitals defenseman Al Iafrate wore no cape but he saved the day and staved off summer for at least one more game by scoring three goals to lead the Capitals to a 6-4 victory over the New York Islanders in front of 16,823 last night at Capital Centre.

The Capitals' triumph cut the Islanders' lead to 3-2 in the best-of-seven Patrick Division semifinal series. The Islanders can still advance to the Patrick finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a victory in Game 6 Wednesday night at the Nassau Coliseum. {The Penguins beat the New Jersey Devils, 5-3, last night to win their series, 4-1. See story, Page E7.} If the Capitals win Wednesday they will be the hosts for Game 7 on Friday.

Iafrate's hat trick was needed to hold off the four-goal performance by New York's Ray Ferraro -- who scored the game-winning overtime goals in Games 3 and 4.

It was the first of Iafrate's career, the second by a defenseman in franchise history (Kevin Hatcher had one earlier this season) and it was the first by any National Hockey League defenseman in the playoffs since 1984. Given the trouble some of the Capitals forwards have had scoring, Iafrate's output prompted questions about his becoming a forward.

"I don't even think about it," said Iafrate, who had two goals in Game 4. He added with a laugh, "Brad Marsh {fellow defenseman and former teammate} always said a forward is just a dumb defenseman."

Iafrate's last goal came on a feed from Michal Pivonka with 11:11 left in the third period and gave the Capitals a 5-1 lead. An easy win, huh? Not with these Capitals.

In the previous two games, Washington gave up 3-1 leads in the third period. This time, they came close to doing the same with a 4-1 lead, and needed all of Iafrate's scoring. Ferraro scored three of his four goals in less than eight minutes after Iafrate's last goal to cut the Capitals' lead to 5-4. Ferraro's last goal came with just 2:15 left. The Islanders had a bundle of chances to tie but could not make up the entire deficit.

Defenseman Sylvain Cote had the Capitals' first goal against goalie Glenn Healy, who had played all of the first four games and was replaced by Mark Fitzpatrick to start the second period with the Capitals ahead, 3-1. Ferraro had that first goal on Capitals goalie Don Beaupre, who was making his first start of the series. In that second period, Pat Elynuik scored to extend the Washington lead to 4-1, before Iafrate scored his last one. Dale Hunter had the final Capitals goal, scoring into an empty net with eight seconds left.

The Islanders were not very happy after the game. Coach Al Arbour was displeased his team played well only in the last 10 minutes, but he was livid with Hatcher and referee Dan Marouelli.

With the Islanders pressing to tie the game in the last two minutes, Tom Fitzgerald chopped at Beaupre as if he needed a cord of wood for the winter. Arbour thought Beaupre was faking the pain and thought Marouelli's call amazing since he hadn't called Hatcher for slashing Steve Thomas. Hatcher and Thomas had been going back and forth all night. And, in Game 4, Hatcher slashed Benoit Hogue after Hogue speared him.

Arbour referred to Hatcher as "Paul Bunyan with his double ax. Why doesn't he use his body and drop his stick? He was using that as a weapon."

Arbour was mad enough that, for a few minutes, he prohibited his team from speaking to the media. Islanders General Manager Don Maloney spoke to Jim Christison, the supervisor of officials working this series. An Islanders official asked Christison if Arbour could come over and Christison told her, no, that Arbour had already been over to kick on the door of the officials' room.

This was the first game that ended in regulation after the previous three went to overtime. The previous time two teams played three consecutive overtime games was the 1991 Smythe Division finals between Edmonton and Los Angeles. Three other playoff series have had four overtime games and all five games in the 1951 Stanley Cup finals involved overtime, as Toronto defeated Montreal.

Besides using Beaupre in place of Rick Tabaracci, Murray put rookie center Steve Konowalchuk in the lineup in place of left wing Randy Burridge, who had scored a goal in Game 3, his first since returning from surgery on both knees. That meant Alan May moved from center to a wing on the fourth line.

"Two things there," Murray said yesterday morning of the change. "Randy has brought a lot of good things as far as intensity and energy. He comes to play with a lot of adrenaline. It's still there but it's starting to level off. I see the timing and anticipation being a factor. It's natural after being out all year. The other thing is ... we've had two double overtime games and a one overtime game, which puts a lot of demands on the {other three} centers and I want a fourth available."

Playing in his first NHL playoff game, Konowalchuk got his first point by pushing a faceoff back to Cote at the point. Cote's shot was hardly blistering but it eluded Healy for his first goal of the series and a 1-0 lead with 75 seconds gone in the game.

Ferraro scored on a power play for a 1-1 tie with 4:37 gone in the game, but for the rest of the first 50 minutes, the Capitals played reasonably sound defense. Beaupre had to make a few good stops, but the Islanders didn't run wild.

"The opportunities we gave up were not that many and not that close," Murray said.

Iafrate scored on an unscreened shot from the point for a power-play goal and 2-1 lead. Then he took a pass from Bob Carpenter and ripped one past Healy for the 3-1 edge.

Dimitri Khristich's yeoman work behind the net eventually allowed Hunter to flip a pass that caromed in off Elynuik for a 4-1 lead with 7:18 left in the second period. That should have been enough, but it wasn't. Thankfully for the Capitals, Iafrate had one more left. Michal Pivonka -- who had only one point in the first four games -- found Iafrate in the slot and he scored over Fitzpatrick for 5-1 with 11:11 left. Doug Halward was the previous defenseman to register a playoff hat trick, playing for Vancouver vs. Calgary in 1984.

Then came the collapse. Not total, not lethal, but a collapse nonetheless. Ferraro went past Khristich and Keith Jones to score with 10:06 left. During a delayed penalty on the Capitals, Ferraro came on as the extra skater, walked down the slot and scored to make it 5-3 with 5:38 left.

It should have been settled when Peter Bondra had a breakaway, but Fitzpatrick stopped that. Then Mike Ridley missed an empty net. Beaupre made great stops on Pierre Turgeon and Uwe Krupp, but Turgeon found Ferraro open for one last goal. "The miniature Mario Lemieux," Cote said of Ferraro, his former Hartford teammate.

"We've come out of the gates very well," Kelly Miller said. "It's just the finishes that have hurt us."