An eyelid popped open, reluctantly, and there were the Capitals.




At 8 a.m.

So far behind the rest of the National Hockey League for so long, they do not quite rustle roosters these days to catch up. But they are into calisthenics by 7:15 and on the ice less than an hour later. This morning they were flailing away at the puck, and each other sometimes, in fog.

In fog thick enough, to be exact, to gather into small bundles, tie onto a stick and peddle in the nearby park. Brigadoon-like is how the elements left the rink, players cutting through fog that drifted as high as the glass. Scenic for fans -- a few natives drop by practice on the way to making the world a bit sweeter through chocolate -- scary for goalies.

"Worst I've ever seen," Pat Riggin said later.

You would not drive in such fog; if you did, nothing beyond the hood ornament would be visible. Which meant that Riggin and some other Cap goalies in the 8 a.m. game were in padded panic in front of the net. Pucks that would be hauled over for speeding are tough enough to stop when a goalie can see them; today all Riggin could do was try to sense from where the next bullet would come.

There was no aid and comfort from teammates who were the opposition.

"Everybody was winding up (to shoot) a little farther out," Coach Bryan Murray said. "Knowing none of them (the goalies) could really see the puck that far."

They might as well have been blindfolded.

"Didn't know who had the puck," Riggin admitted. "I'd let the stick on the ice (when his instincts told him to turn the other way), in case something came out of the fog. It could have been very embarrassing."

It wasn't. Some would say the Capitals were in their natural element, that they have played as though in a fog their entire lives; lately, in and out of gunk, on and off the ice, they have not been an embarrassment.

In the absolute worst conditions today, Riggin for a period was protected enough by defenders to keep every shot out of the net. And only four goals were scored the entire two-period game. Maybe the shooters couldn't see, either. But most of the NHL is convinced the Capitals, at long last, have enough hitters to keep Dave Parro, Riggin and whoever else might be minding net safe and sane the entire season.

"A little fun; lotta work," Murray said of his first training camp.

A fellow familiar with tamer sports was agog. These guys get after it before just about everyone else paid to play. NFL laborers rarely put a cleat on a practice field before 9 and almost never smack one another until the p.m.; baseball and basketball, the civil sports, don't know the sun rises before 10.

"Any extra body weight," Murray said, "has pretty well gone by the boards."

Some scuffles in the second game, after the fog lifted, suggested the coach meant that literally.

He means to have a team for the long, playoff run.

"Certainly much better; certainly much deeper; bigger and stronger in a number of spots," he said of his first full-season team. "There's no doubt a few guys on the club last year won't have jobs with the big team to start."

The idea now, through a tournament of sorts, players split into four teams, is to see who can play, and who can play without quickly huffing into a heap on the bench. Murray was pleased that "99 percent of the team showed up in excellent shape."

The coach also was fit, having spent a good deal of the offseason in his hometown of Shawville, Quebec, helping rebuild a hotel he partly owns. Nail by joist by shingle. The place burned Jan. 18, about two months after he assumed on-ice command of the Capitals.

He remembers his wife on the phone with the news, not being calm at all, starting the long-distance conversation with, "Sit down."

So Murray has been involved with reversing two disasters.

He thinks one of them, the hockey team, can make do nicely with fresh timber.

"(Bobby) Carpenter is so much more confident," he said, "so much more mature. A very positive factor. (First-round draftee Scott) Stevens is an excellent prospect, for this year. He's physically capable, although we'll have to wait until the (exhibition) games to see how he competes at this level.

"He could be a pretty solid person by Christmas time."

Murray and General Manager David Poile still are glowing over the apparent trade victory they scored over the Canadiens, that four-for-two swap that gave the Capitals instant defensive credibility.

And some unexpected offense.

Craig Laughlin has been one of the surprises of camp, with more goals than anyone except another new sharpshooter, Milan Novy.

"If he can play to the level he's played in camp," Murray said of Laughlin, "it'll be great." He might well have been talking about his entire team.