The Capitals have been saved. There are new investors, a dozen of their early home games are guaranteed sellouts and season-ticket sales have never been higher.

All of that means a large order of extra pressure on the ice this season, and no one knows that better than the players themselves.

"After all the activity this summer, I don't know if people will be lenient with us if we struggle at the start," said right wing Mike Gartner, recalling last season's 1-11 beginning. "So I feel we just can't struggle along."

For the eight seasons of their existence, the Capitals have done exactly that, never making the NHL playoffs.

On paper, nearly everyone around the league agrees, Washington is a talented club, a playoff contender. On ice, the Capitals have lived by Murphy's law.

"If my team had had the kind of setbacks they've had, I'd be terribly, terribly upset," said Bill Torrey, general manager of the New York Islanders. "They've tried hard and I've always felt they were right on the verge."

Gartner said that he spoke out two years ago, predicting that the Capitals would make the playoffs. They missed by the breadth of a skate blade, and now Gartner no longer deals in promises.

"The pressure to do well has always been on us, but now, after all the activity this summer, it'll be that much more," he said. "Not that it's undue pressure. After everyone else has done his job, now it's our job."

Ryan Walter, the team's captain, said, "If I start off concentrating on not doing poorly, it's too negative. Instead, I would just say we've got an awful lot of hope on this team."

Hope is what the Capitals will need in fighting for a playoff spot next spring. Washington will play in the Patrick Division, which consists of Philadelphia, the New York Islanders and Rangers, Pittsburgh and now the New Jersey Devils, formerly of Colorado.

To make the NHL's 16-team playoff roster, the Capitals will have to beat out two of those teams. One general manager called it "a race for the bottom between New Jersey and Washington," but Gartner thinks Washington's playoff chances are "very realistic."

"With the sellouts and everybody buying season tickets, I think that's a little more incentive to do well," he said. "And around the league, I find a lot of teams have great respect for us. I can't pinpoint any one need we have. But right before training camp, everyone thinks he has a Stanley Cup team. I'm not saying we'll win it, but I can say we will surprise a lot of people."

Bob MacCammon, Philadelphia's coach, said he isn't rooting for the Capitals, but "if they play with the same intensity they did at the end of last season, they'll be headed for the playoffs. I hope they finish someplace behind us."

MacCammon said the Capitals' added expectations this year may help them.

"Often, when a team goes through a trying situation together, it makes the players pull harder," he said. "I would think it would be very settling for them all to know they've got jobs and aren't going anywhere. That could balance out any extra pressures."

But Walter wants to see his team apply its own pressure. "At the beginning of any season, sometimes there is a lackadaisical attitude," he said. "Guys say, so what, it's an 80-game year, and we'll make up the points later. But it's easier to get them early, because those games go by so fast."

An infusion of confidence is the Capitals' major need. "All of life is confidence, sure, but it's such an amazing part of sport," Walter said. "But does it take winning to build confidence? I'm hoping we can start believing in ourselves enough to get that winning mentality.

"A lot of people who've never seen hockey have bought tickets so we could stay here. Yes, there's pressure on us, but we've played some games well under pressure. Now we'll have to play all of them that way."