Just as area residents encountered the second coming of winter yesterday, hockey fans prepared for the second -- and most important -- phase of the season.

When they entertain the New York Islanders in the opener of a best-of-five Stanley Cup playoff series tonight at Capital Centre at 7:30, the Washington Capitals will try to forget everything that came before. In particular, they want no remembrances of the last two playoffs, in each of which they were eliminated by the Islanders.

"The last two years are past and the regular season is past," said team captain Rod Langway. "This is a new season and, hopefully, we'll start playing the way we should be playing. Everything is wiped clean. There are no stats to worry about. It's just a case of getting back to playing one game at a time.

"Every series is different. You don't know who will play well and you get a new hero every series. The whole team has to do the job, not just me or Bobby (Carpenter) or Mike (Gartner). If one player has a bad series, it could hurt the whole club."

Coach Bryan Murray, weary of answering questions about why the Capitals stumbled after leading the Patrick Division so much of the season, said, "Wednesday starts the all-important year. We can forget the regular season and I'm sure the intensity and team play we've strived to return to will return at a high level.

"We're going to be in tough every series, but we can play tough in every series. We have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup. Getting our wings clipped when we did was a good thing. Maybe it's better for us than if we'd finished first and walked in with a 20-point edge over somebody."

The Islanders would just as soon forget the season just ended, which injuries helped make their poorest since 1974. They were third in the Patrick Division, trailing Washington by 15 points and Philadelphia by 27.

"I expect big things," said Clark Gillies, in his 11th Islander campaign. "The regular season is out of the way and we learned a lesson. Now we can forget about it."

"I'm eager to get it under way," said Mike Bossy, who has scored 23 goals in his last 22 regular-season games at Capital Centre. "I don't think a lot of people expect that much from us, but damned if I don't expect the best from each and every one of us."

Goaltending once again promises to play a vital role in the outcome. Last year, the Capitals outplayed the Islanders but dropped the divisional final, 4-1, largely because of the sensational play of New York goalie Bill Smith.

In contrast, Murray has been prompted to pull his starting goaltender in five of the nine playoff games against the Islanders over the past two seasons.

Smith and Al Jensen, the only Washington goalie to win a playoff game from the Islanders, are expected to start tonight, but neither coach was providing confirmation.

"I want very badly to win this year and I think the players do, too," Murray said. "I don't want to give the Islanders any edge. I want them to prepare for both goaltenders, just as we've spent time on both (Kelly) Hrudey and Smith.

"In the series, with four games in five nights, both goaltenders are going to play. We'll have to use two and we want to use two. They're both ready and I feel confident about both of them."

Jensen, with seven victories in his last eight regular-season starts and a triumph over New York in each of the last two playoffs, looked sharp in yesterday's practice. Afterward, he said, "I don't know who's playing. I'll be ready when I'm told to play. I wish I could start, but if I don't it's no big deal. If the team wins, that's the big thing.

"I feel good and I feel confident. I definitely wish I could have played more games, but in my circumstances I couldn't, so I've just tried to battle back. It was enough for me to get ready."

Jensen underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Feb. 7 and played only 14 games all season. Pat Riggin, who carried the major regular-season load, was a winner Sunday for the first time in nine starts, and a third-period Pittsburgh goal, unscreened from the blueline, added further doubts concerning his status.

Murray indicated that the Capitals were much better prepared for the Islanders this season, particularly with reference to Smith and Hrudey. Warren Strelow, the team's assistant coach in charge of goaltenders, has broken down videotapes of all the goals in games between Washington and the Islanders and claims to have noted some weaknesses.

"We know some things about the Islanders' goaltenders," Strelow said. "Bill Smith, of all the goaltenders in the National Hockey League, is proving to be a playoff goaltender.

"But last year three times he was down looking the other way and the puck hit him on the backside. Is that good goaltending or luck?

"Another part of Bill Smith is that he's mentally tough and emotionally stable. He's able to handle the good things as well as the bad things."

What the Capitals seem to question is whether he is able to handle the rebounds.

"Bill Smith is a great first-stop goaltender," Murray said. "Last year, he made a lot of big stops early and our guys became discouraged. This season, we've analyzed what we can do against him and now the guys feel they can score against him.

"He has not had a banner year and I think that's in part because of what people are finding out about him."

The Capitals frustrated Smith in a 4-3 victory here March 30 and they promised to keep the pressure on him, if he is Al Arbour's nominee.

"We want to get in his way, frustrate him and get him off his game," said Scott Stevens. "When it comes to playoff hockey, you do anything you have to to win."

Another key aspect is the forechecking, with the Islanders likely to pressure Langway and Stevens, and the Capitals trying to wear down defensemen Denis Potvin and Ken Morrow. Both teams expect a physical series and Murray feels the Capitals are better prepared for the bumping and grinding this time around.

A few tickets remain for tonight's game, which will be televised by Home Team Sports. USA and WOR will be blacked out locally, in accord with NHL cable policy.