Long-suffering fans of the Washington Capital will get a closeup, early-bird view of the hockey team's prospects for a giant leap forward this season.

Instead of committing hara kiri with the usual long road trip at season's start, the Capitals will sit at home to play their first four games.

The early visitors include two of the National Hockey League's premier clubs, the champion New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens; a highly placed contender, the New York Rangers, and a team worse off than Washington a year ago, the Winnipeg Jets.

A succcession of Capitals coaches has cited early-season continent-hopping as a major reason for the club's slow starts. Obviously, a stretch at home is preferably, both from a competitive standpoint and to facilitate organization.

In the Capitals' case, this season's early homestand is a particular blessing. Gary Green, beginning his first season as coach, can utilize home-ice practice rather than high altitude travel, because the team is already set for a long haul to Sweden Sept. 19-27.

With training camp in Hershey, Pa., opening on Sept. 15 and the Winnipeg game kicking off this season Oct. 10, the Swedish excursion severely reduces organizational time.

Fans who like to watch the NHL's best teams are advised to shift their attention from football early, because the Islanders and Canadiens will not return to Capital Centre until late March. Once again, the 21 NHL teams will play each other twice at home and twice away.

Although shying away from competition with Monday night football, the Capitals have scheduled at least four home games on every other night of the week. This includes four games on Thursday, a date Washington avoided last year. There will be only two day games, both in late March.

Besides the favorable early schedule, the Capitals once again enjoy a good stretch at home during the playoff drive, playing six of their last nine at Capital Centre.

Starting times for night games remain the same -- 8 on Friday, 7 on Sunday and 7:30 the rest of the time. Ticket prices go up a buck -- to $10.50, $8.50 and $5.50.