In spite of many intense practice sessions and large doses of off-ice optimism, the Washington Capitals opened their exhibition season tonight the way they often begin the regular season: by losing.

Looking disorganized through most of their game with the New Jersey Devils, the Capitals lost, 3-1, failing to convert nine of 10 power-play chances. Coach Bryan Murray, understandably disappointed, blamed lack of organization and "too much individual stuff out there."

"In five-on-five situations, we were adequate," he said. "But we have to be so much more than that."

Indeed, with untried line combinations working together, more than a few pucks landed in the stands. Washington's goal came at 7:39 of the first period, when defenseman Scott Stevens took a pass from Dennis Maruk and slid it to Chris Valentine, who beat goalie Shawn MacKenzie.

New Jersey closed the period with a goal from Randy Pierce. He scored again late in the second period, when Merlin Malinowski and Paul Gagne coordinated one of the night's few successful passing attempts.

In hideous uniforms consisting of olive-green pants and scarlet jerseys, the Devils had to play better than they looked. "Defensively, I would say they were okay," Murray said. "Yeah, I'd say New Jersey was all right."

Drawing a crowd of 1,100, Washington played hesitant hockey for a team that has been talking about a trip to the playoffs. Should a playoff run ever become a reality during the real season, the Capitals will have to beat these same Devils, who also play in the tough Patrick Division.

Washington almost won something tonight -- a second-period scuffle between Capital Davi Hutchinson and Paul Gagne. Once the pair was separated, Hutchinson was taunted by the New Jersey bench. He responded with a gesture and referee Ian Sandercock responded with a misconduct for Hutchinson.

In the final period, Washington came alive briefly, but was unable to score. Doug Jarvis, the defensive forward acquired in last week's trade with Montreal, took the puck and tried to slip it behind goalie Lindsay Middlebrook. It darted off Ken Houston's skate, slid between Middlebrook's feet and back into play.

With five minutes remaining, Bengt Gustafsson shot from 10 feet out, but succeeded only in belting Middlebrook in his middle.

New Jersey's last goal, an unassisted one by Glen Merkoskey, came at 18:41. Murray, who had said earlier today that winning exhibition games would be important for his team, was slightly upset that Washington did not create more offense.

"We did just the opposite," he said. "But I found out a lot of things from this tonight. Let's hope we learn from it."

Goalie Dave Parro, injured in practice when his left shoulder was struck by a puck, will not make the trip to Hartford Saturday, and will be examined by doctors on Sunday . . . Washington plays the Whalers Saturday night and again in Hershey on Sunday, with both games starting at 7:30 . . . Czech center Milan Novy did not play tonight, but will skate in both Hartford games.