Their playoff fantasy finally turned to reality last April, and as they open training camp in Hershey, Pa., today, the Washington Capitals can concentrate on improving, polishing and holding their own, instead of merely scrambling to catch up.

"Last year I was full of question marks going into camp," said General Manager David Poile, who was hired in August 1982. "I didn't know the people in the organization, or the personnel on ice. But now I think we've gotten some stability and the progress we made will pick up where we left off."

The progress was aided largely by Poile's trade with Montreal on the eve of training camp. It brought defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, center Doug Jarvis and forward Craig Laughlin to Washington in exchange for Ryan Walter and Rick Green.

"The trade did have an awful lot to do with our success," Poile said. "Those players helped to dictate the style of play we are becoming known for, and they brought in the Montreal tradition of practicing the way you want to play."

Under the leadership of team captain Langway, the Capitals developed defensively. "Having another quality defenseman, a kid like (rookie) Scott Stevens make the team didn't hurt," Poile added. "A lot of players flourished with our defensive style, although for a guy like Dennis Maruk, it took away his biggest asset, scoring."

Maruk, who had been moved to the left side for most of last season, watched his goal production drop, and Poile dealt him to Minnesota during the summer.

But Poile, who has insisted he wants to achieve stability on the Washington roster, engineered no blockbuster deals this time. He acquired Dave Christian from Winnipeg, did not renew the contracts of Milan Novy, Ted Bulley and Randy Holt. Peter Andersson, a Swedish defenseman, also joined Washington.

"Last season, we came into camp with so many new guys, trying to fit in, we didn't know who'd be in Washington, and it was a case of just trying to get 20 guys ready to play together," said Coach Bryan Murray.

"The biggest thing going for us now is that we have pretty much of a set team. There are a couple spots open, and there's always a chance for a younger guy to beat out an older one. But that's not as likely or as necessary as it was last year."

Poile said he hopes to see "one of the kids at camp come out of the pack and surprise us, but no, I am not really expecting it. We've got 18 guys who have jobs based on last year, and the only thing to keep them off is if they somehow fail, or if someone comes to take their place."

Both Poile and Murray have greater expectations for third-year player Bobby Carpenter, who has never lived up to the publicity blitz that accompanied his arrival. "He will be given more responsiblity, both in regular shifts and on the power play," Murray said. "I think in his third year, he can feel better about being established in the league, and doesn't have to put a lot of pressure on himself."

Stevens, the rookie defenseman who played like a veteran, is also expected to progress. "Confidence was never a question for Scott, but I think mentally he'll have to make himself do more because others, such as the fans, know what he can do and will want to see more of it," said Murray.

The fans, who were rewarded with a pair of playoff contests in Capital Centre, have demonstrated faith in the team's upward moves by purchasing 5,000 season tickets this summer, up from 4,583 at the start of the season. That represents an 80 percent renewal rate. Poile said the team is counting on starting the year with 6,000 season tickets sold.

Ten-game packages are also being sold, and while the number is not yet near the 7,500 team owner Abe Pollin had said he needed to keep the club operating a year ago, Poile said, "It's progress. Maybe it's not where we want to be, but in another couple years, if we continue to have teams that do well, it will reach a point where this thing will take off."

Poile is reluctant to sound too optimistic, even though the Capitals enjoyed the best season of their existence. "Nobody had an outstanding year statistically, but knowing that Carpenter, Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson can each score more goals than last year is one reason for optimism," he said.

"There is no reason why the defensive players can't play as well as they did last year. The only real low point of last year was coming out of training camp and going 2-6-1.

"Even so, at this time of year, every general manager tends to overrate his team. Over the long summer, you have a lot of fantasies."

Poile isn't dealing in daydreams, however. "The memories from last year are great," he said. "I remember all of those moments, but now the players have to go out and do it all over again. The team members have a genuine interest in each other, and as long as that prevails, nobody will let anybody down."