For the Capitals, the rituals begin in earnest tonight in Buffalo.

"I always start dressing (in his game uniform) with the left side, pads, socks and the skate," said Rick Green, "and keep on from there. I'm also the last man on the ice."

"I like old stuff," said 12-year veteran Bob Kelly. "Whenever possible with equipment, I'll try to get something reconditioned rather than chuck it for something new."

"I'll fiddle with my sticks," said Dennis Maruk. "And while most everybody else here sleeps the afternoon before a game, I'll walk around town. That's the way I relax."

The time before the first game of a new season is special in all of sport, for reflection and rededication, though the Caps scarcely have had time lately to do more than pack and play. With their overseas tour and four exhibitions in four nights, there has been no time for such as the pre-opener team dinner owner Abe Pollin hosted in Cap Centre last season for players, staff and their families.

"A nice touch," Kelly said. "It broke the ice."

Some players tape their sticks in strange ways; Phil Esposito would go daffy if he saw sticks crossed. Until about the middle of last season, Mike Gartner was superstitious silly.

"Everything you can imagine," he said. "Avoiding cracks on the sidewalk, lacing the skates a certain way, eating the same meals, even listening to the same song. Then I realized how silly all that was, how needless. There's no such thing as luck."

Quiet. Mike Palmateer might be listening.

"What I do is pretty much on whim," the goaltender said. "I'll slap a guy on the same spot a while before games. Then we'll lose and I say, 'Well, gotta slap him somewhere else.' "

Whatever preseason and pregame routines Pollin, Coach Gary Green and other Cap executives and fans once tried very likely have been exhausted. They are frustrated beyond belief: seven years in the NHL, seven years out of the playoffs, 137 victories and 334 losses. And an injury-riddled and leaky defense on the eve of this season, and a more hurdle-filled road to the playoffs.

"It's very important to get a good start, those first 10 games," said Gartner, knowing that if that happened the Caps would be Washington's darlings, at last. They would grab at least temporary control of media attention, check the Redskins to a back page now and then.

"A man's game," Jean Pronovost said in the dressing room, looking Rick Green in the eye.

Green is one of the Caps' wounded.

"Little aspirin on the thigh," said Pronovost, slapping his own, "and out you go."

Green nodded.

Later, Pronovost grew mellow. He was sitting in the stands of the Caps' practice rink with Kelly, watching a dozen or so younger players during a preworkout drill and joking about their own real ages and ice ages.

Less than two months shy of 31, Kelly needs 79 games to hit 900 for his career; less than three months short of 36, Pronovost needs 12 games to reach 1,000, 10 goals to reach 400 and 29 points to reach 800.

"If they're startin' to call you 'Pops,' Pronovost said, "they'll be calling me 'Grandpops.' "

Thinking ahead and then back to his childhood, he said, "You don't play this game for the money." His face, pushed out of shape over the years by pucks and fists, already announced that for him. Pronovost added that hockey filled his mind almost from his first memories, that there never was a thought of working at anything else.

"My older brother (Marcel, about 16 years older than Jean) made the NHL when he was 19," he said, "and that got me thinking about it. If I had to do it all over again today, I'd go on to school (college). Nobody scouted the schools for players when I was growing up." Smiling, Pronovost recalled one especially vivid early experience.

Marcel had made the playoffs, but there was no television to watch him on in the Pronovost home. So the family walked next door, where there was a television not only working that night but also tuned to the game. And facing a window.

Young and old, the Pronovosts pressed their faces to the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse of Marcel.

"The neighbors finally saw us," Jean said, "and invited us in to watch."

Yesterday, he watched Bobby Carpenter glide along the ice and admitted that at 18 he would not nearly have been ready for the NHL. Somebody mentioned that the NHL probably would not embrace Carpenter if it was the size now that it was when Pronovost was 18: six teams.

A thought was passed to Pronovost: what advice would he, before his 989th regular-season game, offer Carpenter before his first?

"Work," he said. "Work hard. Pull your weight. Make a contribution."

It was time for he and Kelly to go to work, but as they walked down through the stands Pronovost paused, turned and said, smiling, "I'm not a wise man."

But bright enough to keep his nose clean, if not straight.