What a drag yesterday was. What an opportunity missed by politicians scratching for votes, by a nation desperate to celebrate heroism. I mean, the Washington Capitals are unbeaten, in first place in the National Hockey League and the country keeps its collective nose in the out basket.

This is cosmic.

Yet there was no holiday for government drones.

Not a statesman inserted a syllable about the Capitals in the Congressional Record.

Not even a teeny-tiny parade.KEN DENLINGER

Possibly, nobody but kin met the team when it returned from New York.

Winning the Stanley Cup will change all that.

Okay, maybe it is a bit early to get giddy. Milan Novy also seems to think so, he being the Czech who speaks little English but manages to communicate wonderfully at times.

"One game," he said after the come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Rangers. "Seventy-nine to go."

Still, optimism is even more rampant on a team from which seldom has been heard a discouraging word of late. No sooner had Mike Gartner pushed in the winning goal with 110 seconds left than Coach Bryan Murray was puffing his chest out and saying:

"I think we belong in the top three of this division. We have a legitimate chance for that. There's a long way to go, of course, but that's our objective."

That's the Patrick Division, for civic sorts who helped save the Capitals without being passionate over hockey. It's the division of the three-time Stanley Cup-champion Islanders and the flailers from Philly, the Flyers. Murray assumes they will be one-two; he believes, publicly anyway, his Capitals can beat out the Rangers for third.

Fourth gets 'em to the Promised Land, the playoffs they have avoided every one of their eight years of life.

Some expected and surprising things happened to the Capitals opening night. They usually beat the Rangers, of course, and Rod Langway was as smooth and tough as advertised on defense. But Novy and this season's puck prodigy, Scott Stevens, were more productive than anyone imagined.

Of Novy, who scored one goal and assisted on two others after an indifferent exhibition season, Murray gushed: "He's the greatest thing since sugar. He struggled. But when the real thing came up, he came up great."

Came up with assists 90 seconds apart to get the Capitals from 2-0 to a tie early in the second period is what Novy did. He banged the puck off goalie Ed Mio the first time and Ted Bulley punched it; when he did it again, Bobby Carpenter flicked in the rebound.

Novy is the Capitals' 31-year-old rookie; their 18-year-old rookie, Stevens, also scored. He's still as amazed as the rest of us that the puck got past Mio. All he was trying to do was slap it goalward so something nice might eventually happen.

When it actually went in, his jaw about dropped to the ice in shock. Hallelujah! First real game; first real shot; first goal, in Madison Square Garden, with his parents in the audience.

"Some rookies don't get that first one till halfway through the season," he said. "I hope we get going this season and don't look back. I was nervous at the start, but then we got a couple goals and started skating. And I got a couple hits in, started to lose those jitterbugs. All I saw when I shot was the defense. Then (Capitals) hands went up (in joy)."

His job description is keeping pucks out of nets, and in that regard Stevens said: "Everyone worked harder (than during preseason games), was more psyched. All those dipsy-doodles. You have to watch and not get psyched, not get fooled."

Goalie Pat Riggin felt foolish, flustered and flimsy all in one nightmarish instant with about six minutes left in the first period. A shot by Ed Johnstone hit his mask with what seemed .38-caliber force, or enough for him to suddenly grab the goal for support and then slump to the ice.

"With the mask I used to wear, I might have been out, instead of just stunned," he said. "Got hit here" -- he pointed to the right temple -- "and with the other mask I'd have been cut there and around the eye. This one spreads the impact all over.

"Good invention, even if it did take the Russians to teach us."

One of the lessons Murray, in his first full season behind the Capitals' bench, learned was "sometimes we overcoach." He talked about some inventive strategy that apparently had not gone well, then said: "We told 'em just to do their jobs, to play the lanes. Maybe the guys know this is the Big Apple, that they'll get lots of attention if they do well."

He added: "The past (for the Capitals) is over. The cloud everyone says is hanging over our heads is gone. I hope."

Regardless of the outcome, it was a good night for a Patrick. The Capitals' foremost new important thinker, Richard, thought it grand.

"My mother and sister were sitting with (Ranger General Manager) Craig's wife," he said. "I asked my mother who she was rooting for, and she wouldn't say. Guess that means she's still pulling for the Rangers. We'll change that."