The Washington Capitals have ended 24 years of frustration with a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. Now they have an opportunity to end the Detroit Red Wings' reign as NHL champions.

"We respect them, but we're not in awe of them," Adam Oates said as the Capitals prepared to meet the Red Wings in the opener of the best-of-7 series Tuesday night. "If you get the pulse around here, the guys are fairly confident."And why not? Sparked by Olaf Kolzig's sharp goaltending, the Capitals are playing their best hockey of the season with series victories over Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo.

Kolzig has been the best goalie in the playoffs with a 1.69 goals-against average, four shutouts and a 12-5 record. The Capitals were especially impressive in beating the Sabres and Dominik Hasek, considered by many to be the best goalie in the world.

"I've seen all the polls and Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo were supposed to beat us in five or six games," Capitals coach Ron Wilson said. "I guess Detroit is favored to beat us in four or five. I don't think many people are expecting us to win the Stanley Cup. I don't think the expectations are very high."

The feeling within the Capitals' locker room is quite different, though.

"We have a lot of confidence," said Peter Bondra, Washington's 50-goal scorer. "We are professionals, we can fight through. We'll throw everything we've got at 'em."

Added Kolzig:

"We've got good defense and whoever's got the best goaltending usually wins. We're a confident team. It's going to be exciting. I can't wait to get it started."

Nor can the Red Wings. The defending Stanley Cup champions are trying to break a '90s trend and become the first team to repeat since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Kolzig would appear to be their biggest obstacle - literally and figuratively.

"Kolzig has been hot all year," Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman said. "He covers a lot of net and he's consistent. And he's got to have a lot of confidence after beating a guy like Hasek."

The Red Wings eliminated Phoenix, St. Louis and regular-season champion Dallas to get to the finals. With 103 points during the regular season, Detroit finished 11 better than the Capitals. Count this also in the Red Wings' favor: they were 2-0 against the Capitals during the regular season.

Detroit goalie Chris Osgood had a 2-0 shutout against the Capitals on Jan. 11 in Detroit. Backup Kevin Hodson was in goal when the Red Wings beat the Capitals 4-2 in Washington on Feb. 1.

"Probably the hunger is still there," Detroit's Kris Draper said. "We're not excited. We just want to go back there and win it again."

The Red Wings will have to do it without Brent Gilchrist. The Detroit forward wasn't able to complete Friday night's series-clinching 2-0 victory over Dallas because of a torn muscle in the groin area. Bowman said Saturday that Gilchrist would be out of the series.

Joey Kocur will probably replace Gilchrist. Although he didn't play in the final three games of the Dallas series, Kocur did play a key role in the Red Wings' sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers last year.

While the Capitals are in the finals for the first time in their 24-year history, the Red Wings will be making their third appearance in four years. An Original Six team, the Red Wings broke a 42-year drought by winning their eighth Stanley Cup last season.

*****

Additional Information

Stanley Cup Finals

Game 1: Tuesday

Washington at Detroit, 6 p.m. (FOX)

Game 2: Thursday

Washington at Detroit, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 3: Saturday

Detroit at Washington, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 4: Tuesday, June 16

Detroit at Washington, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 5: Thursday, June 18

Washington at Detroit, 6 p.m.* (FOX)

Game 6: Saturday, June 20

Detroit at Washington, 6 p.m.* (ESPN)

Game 7: Tuesday, June 23

Washington at Detroit, 6 p.m.* (FOX)

*-if necessary