WE KNOW, it's early in the playoffs, and prudence dictates that we wait a few more games before getting too fired up about the Washington Capitals' quest for the revered Stanley Cup of hockey. But the Capital Centre is no place for excessive displays of prudence, anyway. The playoffs are under way, and the Caps are in them again, as they were last year. And now, as they did in '84, they are moving swiftly through the first round, having pulled out two grueling overtime victories against the formerly awesome New York Islanders. One more -- why not tonight? -- and the Caps will skate smartly into Round Two for the second time. This is where the similarities should stop, though, because last year the second round was the end of the road for the men of Landover.

Likely to add still more drama in the second series is the possibility that the Caps may confront their archenemies, the Philadelphia Flyers. For those fans who pulled for the Caps through all the painfully lean years, a successful reckoning with the Flyers at this stage would be singularly delicious. And then . . .

All right, maybe we are skating a little ahead of ourselves. But there's a special glow around town when a team takes it all, and it's been weeks since the Hoyas had people all over the region riveted to television sets. It's long past time for the Stanley Caps.