Don't talk of Thursday and the second round, of Flyers and Rangers, Froese and Vanbiesbrouck. What's next is next. What's now is now. Why dirty your shoes with mud from a faraway swamp? Finally, and for the first time, the Washington Capitals have skimmed the New York Islanders from the NHL playoffs. How grand! How glorious! Those spectral Islanders gone at last, their haunting done, their bubbling witches' caldron sealed tight. This is a time to talk of dragons being slain, of hurdles being cleared, to run the mythological weight-training gamut: getting monkeys off backs, albatrosses off necks, balls and chains off legs. How sweet! How stunning! These nights the Capitals sleep on satin sheets. These days they walk on carpets of rose petals and dew.

A sweep, no less. Two straight at home, then the finishing stroke there, on Long Island, where last year's nightmare took root. You must remember how grisly that was: the Capitals, up by 2-0 in games, needing just one victory more, dropped both at Nassau Coliseum, blowing a 4-2 lead with one period left in Game 4, then lost Game 5 when Bill Smith stood large in the goal mouth and declared, The Puck Stops Here. How satisfying to get another chance at such a rival and to make so much of it. "The biggest thing was beating them so convincingly, like we did," said Mike Gartner. Never before had the Islanders been swept from the playoffs.

And what a joyful dessert to close it out on Long Island, scene of so much distress through the years. "There was no better time or place to put the whole thing to rest," Gartner said. History taught the Capitals well enough that they weren't doomed to repeat it again. "Last year we went up there thinking we only needed one of three -- and you saw what happened," Dave Christian explained. "This year we went up specifically to win this game." Echoing that sentiment, Gartner said, "We played it like there was no tomorrow. We didn't want to let them back in the series." And finally the spell was broken, the ghosts were busted. "It's like we'd been carrying the Islanders around for four years," said David Poile, the general manager, exhaling at long last. "We all feel a lot lighter now."

Although the Capitals had cavalierly claimed superiority over the Islanders all season long and scoffed at the notion of The Playoff Jinx, there was reason to suspect their readiness. One had to consider playoff history between these teams. One had to consider, too, that Bengt Gustafsson couldn't play and that Gartner and Bob Carpenter might not play. Neither could the Capitals say that momentum was theirs, having failed in Philadelphia to win the last game of the regular season with the division championship at stake. Then, one by one, the walls of doubt tumbled: Both Gartner and Carpenter played, their presence alone lifting the morale of their teammates. Bill Smith, now more myth than mystery, was solved in Game 2, his only appearance in the series. "There was no way he was going to stand on his head again," Craig Laughlin promised. Apparently what happened in Philadelphia was of little consequence. "It was an important game," Gartner allowed. "But when we didn't win, all the guys -- almost in one voice -- said, 'Who cares?' People wondered if we could get ready for the Islanders. Obviously we did."

There is the sense that the Capitals feel more relieved than exulted in beating the Islanders. They had, after all, beaten the Islanders four times this season in seven games and finished 17 points better in the same division. "I can't say that we expected to win," Christian said. "But we were confident that we could and should win." What was particularly nice, Laughlin said, was being on the receiving end of the congratulatory handshake line and hearing them say, "Good luck the rest of the way."

How far the "rest of the way" goes for the Capitals remains to be seen, but they have thought, and said, all season that they are legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. "Right now we're emotionally set," the spirited Laughlin said. Admitting that the Capitals were one year late in eliminating the Islanders, he declared, "There's no reason why we should choke in the playoffs again. There's no reason why anyone should beat us."

Laughlin spoke as he walked through National Airport yesterday morning. How unexpected was the Capitals' sweep of the Islanders? Well, the only fans there to greet them were the Madsons of Dale City: Big Bill, 37, and Little Bill, 7. Little Bill was there wearing a Capitals jersey, his autograph pad in hand, and Big Bill was there because he's a baggage handler, and he knew which flight the Capitals were coming in on. By the way, many of the Capitals are sporting a new look: the Landover Vice Look, replete with the Don Johnson Carefully Cultivated Stubble. Looking like Sonny Crockett's back-up band, the Capitals walked out to where they assumed their bus would be waiting, but found no such bus. The sweep had caught everyone unaware. So piling four to a taxi, they scrambled out. "I'm surprised you're catching cabs," a dispatcher said to the group headed by Coach Bryan Murray. "You should have a bus. The way you guys played, hey, you should have a limo."