Bob Bourne has been in 131 National Hockey League playoff games and been on four Stanley Cup championship teams, so he understands what kind of attitude a team needs to win.

It's a sense of courage that lets you walk into the opponent's building and not flinch. The New York Islanders used to do that like no one else. And for three years the team they did it against in the first round of the playoffs was the Washington Capitals.

No more.

"No longer are they intimidated by the word 'Islanders,' " Bourne said of the Capitals, who defeated New York, 3-1, tonight in front of 16,116 fans in Nassau Coliseum to win their Patrick Division semifinal series, three games to none.

"Every player on that team is playing with a lot of confidence," the Islanders' left wing said. "They came in and all of them said they enjoyed playing in our building. That can't happen. You can't allow any team to enjoy itself in your building. In the Garry Howatt days, no team liked to play in our building. It just shouldn't be that way."

But Bourne understood because, he said, the Capitals are the better team this season.

"I always thought we'd be playing," Bourne said. "I just assumed we'd be playing for a long time. I gear myself to playing six or seven weeks of tough hockey after the regular season.

"Our attitude was excellent, our concentration and intensity were good. No excuses, though. They did play very well. They played as well as I've ever seen them play and they did it for three games in a row. I don't think we played as well as we could, but it was a case of being beaten by a better team."

Asked if the Capitals were ready for the Stanley Cup finals, Bourne gave a qualified maybe.

"Aaaaah . . . they're a good team, but it's between them and Philly," Bourne said. "There's not another team in the conference that can beat those two. If they stand up to Philadelphia -- assuming they get by the Rangers -- and play tough, they could beat them. I guarantee it will be a tough series."

Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin knows a thing or two about stopping the other team, and it is in that area that the Capitals have improved since this time last year.

"There is a marked improvement on defense," Potvin said. "They've got [John] Barrett and [Greg] Smith, both of whom are good defensemen and have good size. It gives them a chance to play with six defensemen, and you really need that in the playoffs."

Potvin also pointed to a difference in the Capitals' confidence.

"They are more at ease with their game," he said. "Part of that is due to the fact that they were never behind in the series. If we could have gotten a lead, we might have gotten them out of their game. But they never had to open up."

And, ironically enough, it was the Capitals' defensemen who put the points on the board tonight -- Rod Langway, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy scored the three goals.

That isn't to say it was only the defensemen who stopped the Islanders. The forwards bottled up the New York offense. And by the time some of it leaked out, it was too late.

"We just couldn't get untracked," Islanders Coach Al Arbour said. "We were off a beat the whole series."