The Washington Capitals played in the Stanley Cup finals this year. Unfortunately for them, they did so in their minds, before they had cleared the physical obstacles presented by the New York Rangers and the Adams Division representative.

Post-mortems yesterday from players and management focused on the tendency to look ahead, rather than focus on the current assignment, as probably the key factor in the Capitals' inability to handle the Rangers, a team they outdistanced by 29 points during the regular season.

After erasing their old nemesis, the Islanders, in three games, the Capitals were pumped up for a confrontation with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Then, when the Rangers ousted the Flyers in a shocking result, Washington failed to heed the warning that New York's upset bolt could strike a second time.

"I think we probably did look too far ahead, didn't look enough at the Rangers," said center Alan Haworth. "Maybe we let down a little bit."

"We thought we could go all the way," said center Bob Gould. "I think we did think too far ahead. But I don't think that was the big factor in them beating us. They checked us so well. They didn't let us play our game."

"The Stanley Cup was in our grasp," said winger Craig Laughlin, who smashed his stick on the crossbar after the Rangers won the deciding game, 2-1, Sunday night in New York, taking the series, four games to two. "This was our year. Deep down inside we know we're a better team than the Rangers."

Not even the Rangers seemed interested in disputing that point and New York center Bob Brooke said, "They got all their breaks in two games. We spread ours out over four."

But the Capitals' lingering feeling of superiority hardly served as consolation. Instead, it made the defeat all the tougher to take.

"You spend eight months, every minute of your time, preparing for something and it goes by the boards so quickly," said Capitals Coach Bryan Murray. "We spent so much time preparing for the Flyers, it was unbelievable. We recognized their weak spots and we were ready to take advantage. But the Rangers got there first.

"Not having to play the Flyers, after thinking we would have to, certainly altered our mental outlook. But even more of a factor was the early games against the Rangers, which led us to believe we were the better team. Then when it came to the crunch, we couldn't score any goals. We had cement hands."

Everyone agreed that the turning point of the series came in the third period of Game 4, after Washington increased its lead to 5-3 on a shorthanded goal by Greg Smith during a botched Rangers line change.

Willie Huber reduced the gap 24 seconds later, Brooke tied it with 2:35 left in regulation time Brooke won it at 2:40 of sudden-death overtime.

"The fourth game was the turnaround, no question," Murray said. "We're up by two in their building and we'd beaten them convincingly the two previous games. They were done and I'm sure if we'd won it, the series would have been over in five."

Murray could not stop shaking his head as he recounted the scoring chances the Capitals failed to convert. He gave New York goalie John Vanbiesbrouck full credit for Game 6, but felt the Capitals deserved blame for earlier failures to put the puck in the net.

"I think we got caught up in all the chances we were getting," Murray said. "It hurt us in the long run. We never got chances in the regular season that we got against the Rangers. We had two-on-ones, breakaways, second shots in the slot."

General Manager David Poile pinpointed the Capitals' lack of scoring as the key factor in the loss, just as it was the three previous seasons against the Islanders.

"Our shortcoming was an inability to score a lot of goals in consistent fashion in big games," Poile said. "Losing the deciding game against the Islanders last year, losing the last game of the regular season to Philly and losing to the Rangers last night, every time we were a goal short from being successful.

"We played the last two games without scoring an even-strength goal. I think we probably had 20 two-on-ones in the last two games and scored one goal on all of them. The chances were there, but whether it was the pressure, just lack of ability to score or a belief that Vanbiesbrouck was a reincarnation of Billy Smith, we just weren't there. We have a nucleus of 10 top players, although that may be stretching it a little. Always in the playoffs, we seem to have five playing excellent and five not quite playing to potential. We've never had all cylinders going . . . "

Murray was criticized in some quarters for using Pete Peeters in every game against the Rangers, when Al Jensen had been so successful during the regular season. But Murray said he would not alter that plan, given a second chance.

"We had changed our goaltenders in the playoffs in the past and wound up losing, so Pete gave us the chance to get on a roll and win," Murray said. "We wanted a different look against the Islanders and Pete goes in and plays as well as he did. Why would you want to change after that?"

If Murray had no quarrel with Peeters, he admitted that he was unhappy with the way other players performed during the series.

"We just didn't rise to the occasion," Murray said. "Our top players have to all contribute. All weren't able to. Some guys played extremely well, but we did not have the consistent, disciplined play throughout the whole lineup we had through the year. I have some ideas for changes, but I want to talk to David [Poile] and my staff. [Boston General Manager] Harry Sinden named names he was unhappy with after the Bruins lost and I have a few, but I don't want to talk about that now."

There was a feeling that perhaps the winners were not receiving sufficient credit for their success.

"In this business, we never give the opposition credit," Poile said. "Is there a better goaltender in this league than John Vanbiesbrouck? And Pierre Larouche a couple of months ago could have been had for nothing and the team that doesn't want him winds up winning with him. Everybody was putting the Rangers down a couple of months ago. Not today."

"The Rangers played very well offensively and defensively and John Vanbiesbrouck was very, very good," Haworth said. "They kind of surprised us by playing so well."

Philadelphia Coach Mike Keenan knows the feeling. Asked why the Flyers lost to the Rangers in the divisional semifinals, Keenan replied, "Sometimes you just lose."

For the Capitals, however difficult it may be to accept, this was one of those times.