Great expectations turned into bitter disappointment for the Washington Capitals.

As players and management met for a final time at Capital Centre yesterday, there was no consolation to be derived from an excellent regular season in which the club compiled the third-best record in the National Hockey League. Instead, the talk was confined to the New York Islanders, Billy Smith and what might have been.

"Sure, we had a great year. But who's going to remember that?" said winger Craig Laughlin.

A reminder that the Islanders -- who eliminated the Capitals Tuesday night despite losing the first two game of the best-of-five series -- needed a few years before they reached championship status prompted winger Mike Gartner to say, "We've been learning from the Islanders the last two seasons and we learned again this year. We don't need to learn anything else except how to beat them."

Coach Bryan Murray was so disappointed after the Islanders' 2-1 victory Tuesday that he avoided the ritual postgame handshake.

"I was really disappointed," Murray said yesterday. "I thought we were the better team and I expected to win. It just wasn't something I wanted to do at that time. I'll offer my congratulations, probably in a phone call to Al (Arbour).

"I knew we'd have to scrape and crawl to get out of the division, but I really thought we'd do it. The first year we weren't good enough. Last year we were good enough but we lacked experience and maturity. This year I felt we'd progressed to the point where we could get over that hurdle.

"A lot of teams are disappointed right now, but we're certainly one of the good teams that's disappointed."

General Manager David Poile echoed Murray's disappointment.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet," Poile said. "I know where I've been and I know where I'm going. I know the feeling I've had in past years that we weren't quite there, but I felt we'd built this team to be ready for this moment. As we found out, it's difficult to beat a dynasty.

"We had a good year and we made a lot of progress. We found out a great deal about all the players in the organization. From a fan's standpoint, we played an exciting, entertaining brand of hockey.

"But last night taints the season. We had an opportunity to jump our biggest hurdle. We came close, but hockey isn't horseshoes. It hurts."

Both Murray and Poile agreed that the Capitals played better hockey in December and January, while racing through a 25-4-2 stretch, than they did in April. But they did not feel it was a case of peaking too early.

"I can't believe that was the case," Murray said. "Younger people try so hard, you never want to retard that. This team shouldn't have peaked yet. It had the potential to go above what we were in January.

"The 5-4 loss to Philly (in the last two seconds), the Buffalo game (a 4-0 defeat at home) and the home and home with Philly (both losses) had an impact on the balance of the season. After we lost first place, the intensity was down. Just the same, we played hard and we played aggressively in the playoffs. We created chances, but we weren't scoring. Offensively, we came up short, no question. A lot of that was Billy Smith.

"From a team point of view, this was not a step backward. We still lost to the Islanders, regardless of the round. We had a good year and we moved up to a high level but unfortunately things don't seem to mean much unless you do well in the playoffs."

"We had our highest point in the months of December, January and the first part of February," Poile said. "There was no better team in the league than the Washington Capitals. While we played well in the five games in the playoffs, I also felt we could have played better.

"Everything in pro sports is a fine line, whether it be peaking, intangibles, momentum, the luck of the draw, the breaks of the game. There's a minutely fine line between us, Philly and the Islanders. The Islanders are walking with big, broad feet on that line and we can't seem to put our toe on it.

"The Islanders had their share of disappointment in the playoffs. They were much more heavily favored than we've ever been and didn't do it. You learn from failures. But I think we've had enough adversity. It's time to win an extra round of the playoffs."

Poile said he planned no major changes in the roster, although he expected at least two players, defenseman Kevin Hatcher and forward David Jensen, to earn spots next season.

"In no way, shape or form am I disenchanted with the Washington Capitals as an organization or the players as individuals," Poile said. "We still could use a couple of types of player -- notably a top scorer and a tough player.

"I plan no wholesale changes. We've been building a step at a time and we will continue to do so. I hope we can bring a couple of new faces onto the hockey club and my first choice would be people in the organization -- Kevin Hatcher and hopefully a healthy David Jensen."

Poile said he would not have done anything differently, although he acknowledged that it would have been nice to have Charlie Simmer in a Washington uniform for the playoffs.

"Certainly, one of our shortcomings was in scoring and after losing two 2-1 games I could go to my grave wondering if we should have picked up Charlie Simmer," Poile said. "I would love to have had Charlie Simmer. But when you see Kevin Hatcher play the way he did the two games at the end of the season and the one playoff game, using that analogy of trading Kevin Hatcher for Charlie Simmer, I'd have to call that a bad deal.

"The easiest thing in this business is to go for it today with no caring for the future. I want to stay here a lot of years and I want the fans to enjoy a competitive hockey club for many years. All the moves I've made have been looking to the future.

"You only get so many cards in this business. You have to decide when to play them. We have all our draft picks this year, plus an extra in the fourth round. A few years ago, I remember sitting at the table with our scouts when we didn't draft until 77th. If any feeling was worse than losing last night, that was it."