The Washington Capitals take the New York Rangers seriously now. When they meet on Tuesday night at Capital Centre, the Capitals will be ready at last. No more overconfidence. No more damning with faint praise. No more cocky predictions.

Yes, come Tuesday with Al Jensen tending goal, as some thought he should have been all along, the Capitals will become Patrick Division champions. Mortal lock. Bet the rent.

What's that you say?

No, that's not possible. Game 7, Tuesday night, at Capital Centre, winner take all. Coach Bryan Murray said so. He'd know, right? Got it filed away here someplace. Let's see. Craig Laughlin: "We've got more character than they do." Nope, not that one. Gaetan Duchesne: "Pierre Larouche is no Mike Bossy." Nope, not that either. Gee, the Brag and Boast drawer is so full it's easy to lose 'em.

Here we go. Bryan Murray after Game 5: "We will be back here Tuesday, I can assure you of that."

See. Now all we have to do is call the Rangers and convince 'em it was best-of-nine all along. Three wins in a row. Piece of cake for the Capitals, a team that is so tough and serious that half the players don't shave before games.

The Washington Capitals can go right on growing those beards. Maybe get 21 pairs of dark sunglasses, too.

The Capitals' mood isn't likely to get better over the next few weeks. "It will be a disappointing summer," said Murray. "We knew damn well that whoever won this division has a helluva chance to win the Stanley Cup." If Edmonton loses to Calgary, make that "will be favored to win" the Stanley Cup.

"We were there. We had enough going for us this year to win it," said Murray, not pulling punches. ". . . It's easy to say that we lost Bengt Gustafsson, but everybody has injuries or has to make stretch runs . . . I'm not sure exactly what we'll do now. But we're not going to scramble with our hockey team. That's not needed. We just have to go back and put our noses to the grindstone.

"Sometimes you look beyond the immediate too early," said Murray, sadly, wistfully. "But I want them to dream."

What the Capitals dream about next season, however, might be slightly different. "We will continue to play the regular season very hard . . . not foolishly, but pushing hard," said Murray, whose greatest strength and greatest weakness may be the same: stubbornness.

"But you know," said Murray, "there are not a lot of rewards for finishing high in the regular season."

When the Capitals have digested some of their perplexity and, hopefully, learned a little humility from all the cocky words they'll now have to eat, they may feel as old hand Mike Gartner does.

"It took the New York Islanders a few years to get over some humps [in the postseason]. Then they won [four] Stanley Cups. It's taking us the same amount of time. We can't look back at it yet and say this was for the good, but maybe someday we will . . . Everything in life is either teaching or learning. This is learning."

Some Capitals are now worried that, as they find themselves in danger of wearing a choke label, the organization may think that it needs different leaders or altered chemistry. "God, I hope we don't make changes," said Bob Carpenter. "This is a great team. Everybody gives 100 percent. We all get along. We gotta say we're gonna learn from this.

"But," he said, looking at Laughlin and shaking his head, "I hope we don't run out of chances to do it together."

If one thought, one nasty second-guess hangs over the Capitals, it's the question of why Jensen never played a minute in the Rangers series. In the regular season, Pete Peeters was 0-2-1 against the Rangers with 15 goals allowed. Jensen was 3-0 with two goals permitted. Perhaps because Murray was as overconfident as his team, he continued to assume that no changes were necessary, that a new goalie, rather than being an inspiration, might be taken as a sign of panic.

Peeters didn't do badly -- allowing 20 goals in six games. But then the Rangers were next to last in the NHL in scoring this season and played the Capitals without their injured captain, Ron Greschner.

This series will be remembered for its ironies. The Rangers didn't even make the NHL's watered-down playoffs until they tied the Capitals with a late goal on the next-to-last day of the season. Talk about not getting rid of a team when you have the chance.

Also, the Capitals hadn't lost in 11 overtime games this season and the Rangers hadn't won in 13. So, of course, the Rangers dominated and won both overtime playoff games. "In the playoffs, you gamble much more and go for the win because it can't end in a tie," said Carpenter. "It's completely different from the regular season."

If nothing else, the Capitals can share credit with the Philadelphia Flyers for creating the potential for one of hockey's greatest Cinderella stories. "Welcome to the party," said Game 6 hero Pierre Larouche. "We haven't turned back into pumpkins yet."

The Capitals should not yet be at the point where they begin to doubt themselves. Or make radical changes.

The Bullets -- now that's another story. There's nobody on the Bullets, except perhaps Jeff Ruland, who's within a light year of being untouchable. This is a club with little chemistry to harm. If, for example, the Bullets could get a lottery pick for Manute Bol, they ought to do it; he's useful, but no star and may be at peak value now while his novelty is fresh.

The Capitals, on the other hand, should be left essentially intact and given another chance to prove that they're half as good as they've said they are. If a team plays best when its ears are burning, then the Capitals ought to be mean motor scooters next year.