"I thought I'd be doing cartwheels, but I'm just sitting here in shock," said Steve Gearhart yesterday.

Brian O'Neill, executive vice president of the National Hockey League, put it a little differently. "We're just happy we're still a 21-team league," he said. "Happy we've still got Washington in the fold."

Gearhart, a mainstay of this summer's Save the Caps Committee, has spent much of his time manning the team's ticket hotlines and hoping Capital Centre would have a hockey franchise come October.

Yesterday's announcement, that the Capitals would indeed skate this year, left Washington hockey fanatics relieved and a little drained.

"I just wanted the team to be here," said Sybil Hindin, another volunteer. She and Gearhart helped start the committee in June, when rumors of the team's shaky future began circulating.

Hindin and Gearhart testified yesterday at the Prince George's County Council meeting, along with one Capitals player (goalie Dave Parro) and a long list of other Save the Caps committee members.

Wearing T-shirts and bearing placards, they turned out in pep rally fashion, hoping to help their team stay in business.

"I wish I could have talked individually to the people who were against it (passage of a bill granting the club temporary tax relief)," Hindin said. "I wish I could make them understand about the Caps.

"But I don't think Prince George's County Council will be sorry for its decision," she said, referring to the council's 10-1 vote to give the Capitals a 95 percent reduction on its amusement tax.

Hindin and others volunteers still working the ticket phones at Capital Centre began answering calls "The Caps are saved" yesterday afternoon.

How long the volunteers and ticket lines will remain could not be determined. Hindin said she was sure she would continue to be involved with the team's efforts.

"We'll do anything to keep the team here, to generate the support they need," she said.

Steve Mehlman, another committee member, called the Capitals' status "a good indication of what the city means as far as sports go.

"This will mean a lot of pressure on the players this year," he said. "But it'll be positive pressure. I think right now, without trades, this team has the ability to make the playoffs." The Capitals have never reached the playoffs during their eight-year existence.

Hindin and Mehlman say their committee will continue to work together for the Capitals, but are not sure of their direction. No matter, says Hindin. "We're just delighted. And if I had been around when the Senators left, I'd have done something like this to try and save them, too."