The Washington Capitals were confident this was their year to end the New York Islanders' jinx. Having done so in shocking fashion, they now feel there is no limit to where that confidence can take them.
"We're as good as we want to be," said captain Rod Langway after the Capitals became the first team to sweep the proud Islanders in a playoff series. "Right now we'll just think about the next series and take each game one at a time, the way we did the Islanders. It's enjoyable to have a day off and rest Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner. We'll be healthier for the next round.
"If we continue to get the same play from our defense and from the forwards coming back, and our goaltender keeps making the big stops, we'll be all right.
"The first year we were beaten by a great Islanders team. The second year we swept Philly and we weren't embarrassed by the Islanders. Last year the series went five, it got down to a one-game series and we were stoned by a great goaltender [Bill Smith]. This year the tide turned and they got stoned by a great goalie Pete Peeters ."
Peeters, obtained from Boston in November, permitted only four goals in the three games, and among the defensemen who gave him solid assistance were Greg Smith and John Barrett, acquired from Detroit March 10. Their performances made General Manager David Poile look like a genius once again.
"The Islanders certainly were one of our big problems," Poile said. "We've come so close before. We felt at one time we were equal to them and at another time better, but they found a way to beat us and we found a way to lose.
"This time our confidence -- the players, the coach, everybody -- was at a little higher level than the past two years. We deserve it. It's finally our time."
If some considered the result a surprise, with the Capitals suffering so many late-season injuries up front, the players say they never felt they would fold against the Islanders again.
"We're just playing better now, and Pete Peeters is making the big stops," Dave Christian said. "Last year we won the first two games, but they were both in overtime and could have gone either way. The way we won the games at home this year, we had a feeling in the back of our minds we could carry it right through. Last year we had the idea we needed to win one of three. This year we wanted to put them away."
"Before, we had too much respect for them," said Gaetan Duchesne, whose shadowing job on Mike Bossy was a key factor in the outcome. "There was more confidence on the team this time. Everybody put us the underdog because of the injuries, but Mike Gartner and Bobby Carpenter were back, and they gave us a big lift.
"We peaked at the right time. Last year we peaked in February, and in March we were not very good. This time it carried over into the playoffs. Four goals in three games -- give Pete Peeters credit. A good goaltender can take you a long way in the playoffs. Beating the Islanders means a lot to us. I think it will carry over to the next series."
The Capitals flew home yesterday without knowing the identity of that next opponent, which will be either Philadelphia or the New York Rangers in a best-of-seven series opening Thursday. But they felt they would not face any greater pressure than in the Islanders series.
"I like four of seven better," Langway said. "The same pressure is there, but you're more at ease, because each game doesn't have that life or death of a three of five. And you've got a day between each game, not like the back-to-back games you have to play early."
The Capitals enjoyed dissecting their remarkable sweep, in which the Islanders never held a lead.
"It wasn't an upset," said Larry Murphy, who joined Langway and Scott Stevens as power-play scorers in Saturday's 3-1 finale. "We were confident, and everything went our way. It's been hard stopping them from turning our power play sour, but it worked this time just like everything else we did."
Of the power play's success, Stevens said, "We broke their box down and had them running out of position. It's tougher to have a good power play in the playoffs, because the guys killing the penalties work harder and don't give you much. But we had great chances all through the series.
"I'm glad we were the ones to sweep them. We deserve to do it, after all the other years when things kept going wrong."
Not one of the Capitals tried to downgrade the Islanders. Instead, they had nothing but praise for their victims.
"The New York Islanders are still looked on as an organization of excellence," said Craig Laughlin, who suffered a slight concussion when he was rammed into the boards by Alan Kerr. "They may be the most complete team to win the Stanley Cup. When I think of Stanley Cup champions, I think of the New York Islanders, not the Edmonton Oilers.
"Now we've finally beaten them. This is a great win for us emotionally. It's going to carry over. Look at our scoring, with goals from the defense, from Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould."
Of the Capitals' 11 goals in the series, five came from the defense -- two by Stevens and single goals by Langway, Murphy and Smith. Gould and Duchesne, the star checkers, contributed two each, and Carpenter and Christian got the others.
"Gould, Duchesne and Christian stopped the [Bryan] Trottier line, and they put in some goals themselves," Langway said. "That put added pressure on that line. Who'd ever have thought Gaet and Bobby would score as many goals as their whole club?"
Asked the difference in this Washington team, Coach Bryan Murray said: "We're bigger and stronger. There was a time when they went to our net very well and we couldn't get to the net.
"This series we had a number of second shots and created a lot of traffic in front of their net. Since the injuries, the defense has kicked in much more than earlier in the year. We got better and we have more depth. And of course, our goaltending is better, with the stability Pete Peeters gives us."
Murray outcoached Al Arbour, who was unable to get the 114th playoff victory that would have tied him with Scotty Bowman for the top spot. Surprisingly, Arbour started the Trottier line against Duchesne and company in the third game, when he had the last change. After Arbour realized it was a losing battle, Murray was able to make substitutions on the fly that kept Duchesne on Bossy.
"Obviously, he [Arbour] wanted to challenge us," Murray said. "He figured on home ice, that line would override our checking line. But Gaetan did a terrific job on Bossy, and they had to make adjustments."
When the game had ended, many of the Islanders' fans remained in their seats, stunned by their heroes' quickest exit in 12 years of playoff competition. The few Washington fans in attendance knew how they were feeling.