Abe Pollin was rightfully proud and flushed with joy early in May when his Washington Capitals were participating in the Stanley Cup semifinals against the Boston Bruins. Other than the Washington Bullets' NBA championship in 1978, it was the zenith of Pollin's tenure as owner of both franchises and their home arena, Capital Centre.

"After all the 16 years of frustration of not being able to achieve something, finally being able to do it is a great feeling," Pollin said the day after the Capitals beat the New York Rangers to move out of the Patrick Division for the first time in franchise history.

Then, some negatives took away the euphoria. In short order:

The Capitals were routed by the Bruins in the Wales Conference finals.

Two days later, four Capitals were implicated in an alleged sexual assault in a limousine outside a Georgetown bar, although a grand jury later declined to bring indictments against any of them.

The St. Louis Blues signed Scott Stevens, the Capitals' two-time all-star defenseman, to an offer sheet that not only will pay him an average of $1.28 million over the next four years, but has begun to change the entire salary structure of the National Hockey League.

In this strangest of summers, Capitals management was forced to assess damage, mend fences in the community and fend off what it considered unwarranted criticism.

Where the organization will stand in the eyes of the community as it begins its 17th season Oct. 5, whether people will show up for games in the record numbers they did last season and what attitude they will bring if they do, are all concerns and questions.

Fan reaction over the alleged assault spans the spectrum, from those who say they will never watch another game to those who are angry because the players were not supported better.

On the ice, Stevens's departure was the first of several personnel changes that creates a new mix. Whether the new recipe will produce a team that builds on the playoff success is uncertain. A potentially sour ingredient is the perception among some players that an otherwise first-class operation is too frugal when it comes to salaries.

Free agent goalie Don Beaupre remains unsigned and defenseman Kevin Hatcher is holding out for a better deal. More than a dozen players are entering the option year of their contracts. Sometimes that produces outstanding individual and team-oriented results and sometimes it produces me-first attitudes.

Pollin -- who also has dealt with a change in the Bullets' management and a major trade -- is unfazed.

"There are always both kinds of things happening," Pollin said recently. "Some good, some bad, some in the middle. I change my hat around 30 times a day from Bullets to Caps to Centre Management to rock concerts to real estate, all kinds of problems.

"I guess I've gotten to the point now that I kind of expect that when things are good, they're not going to stay good, and when things are really bad, they're not going to all be bad. . . . I guess most folks around here call me an optimist; otherwise I couldn't be in the position I am."

The Capitals chose Lake Placid, N.Y., for their training camp this season. The site was picked last winter, but it now seems ironic, given the rough seas the organization has crossed in the previous four months. Rarely has a training camp been more anticipated by an organization, players and fans. For many of them, the conversational topics can only improve.

"I guess I'd like to talk about the games; the highs and the lows," General Manager David Poile said. "The business aspects are always difficult."

The best season in Capitals history ended on May 9 with a Game 4 loss to the Bruins. The worst summer in the Capitals' history began two nights later.

Champions Bar in Georgetown had arranged with Capitals players to hold a postseason party. A 17-year-old girl told D.C. police that, after the party, she was sexually assaulted in the back of a limousine parked outside.

The players she implicated were Dino Ciccarelli, Neil Sheehy, Geoff Courtnall and Stevens. The players denied the accusations from the start. Seven agonizing weeks later, on June 29, a grand jury decided not to indict any of them.

Sources close to the investigation said the grand jury decision hinged on the woman's credibility. The sources said law enforcement authorities were certain there had been sexual activity in the limousine, but that the grand jury did not believe the girl was forced to have sex with the players.

"My personal view of it was very, very troublesome," Pollin said recently. "I have kind of spent my life, at least I think I have, trying to build a reputation for fair play, honesty, fair dealing and upright actions. That is very important to me. The incident was very troubling to me and very gut-wrenching.

"But after having talked to all the players, found out the circumstances in depth of what happened -- they realized they made a serious mistake in judgment and in their actions -- I was able to find it in my heart, knowing all of the ramifications, to forgive them."

Stevens had the longest tenure of any Washington player, but he felt underappreciated and played out his option. Real free agency was almost nonexistent in the NHL until St. Louis signed Stevens for an average of four times what he earned last season.

The money was too good to pass up, no matter the circumstances, but Stevens's bitterness about having been implicated in the Champions case, and the media's handling of it, probably eliminated any doubt in his mind about moving on.

The Capitals chose not to match the St. Louis offer. They said they didn't want to warp their salary structure.

"David Poile did not make the decision," Pollin said. "It was made with David Poile's recommendation, but the final decision was made by {team president} Dick Patrick and myself. I take full credit or responsibility or whatever. I thought it was an unreasonable offer and decided not to match it. Every once in a while, we find some of our colleagues doing some stupid things."

While Ciccarelli and Sheehy told Poile they wanted to remain on the team and weather the storm, Courtnall asked to be traded. So Poile sent his second-leading goal scorer from last season to St. Louis for center Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor.

"I'll have to wait and see how the players react," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said. "There is nothing we can do other than play with the team we have. It's over and done. We got two good players back in Zezel and Lalor and we've got to move on. We'll have a team ready to open the season. Hopefully, we will be as entertaining and exciting as we were with Stevens and Courtnall.

"As far as the Georgetown incident, I think around here {Capitals offices}, time has helped to put a lot of it behind us. Certainly, you still think about it. Everybody is sorry it happened. I've talked with Neil several times. He wishes it hadn't happened and is trying to put it behind him.

"As a coach, I won't be avoiding the situation. There will be a time where we have a team meeting to talk about it. But it is over with. The grand jury did not have enough evidence to indict anyone. Everybody apologized and is sorry that it happened. Certainly there is remorse on the part of the players that the whole thing happened."

The Georgetown incident ripped a hole in what had been a very solid public image, built over many years. There is desire to regain the goodwill, but also a concern about how many fans will express their displeasure by not buying tickets.

"Obviously, that is difficult to predict," Pollin said. "But my hope is that people would realize that that incident is behind us. The players made a mistake. They admitted it. The team has apologized to the fans. The players have apologized. We have apologized for their actions. We've asked for forgiveness."

The Capitals set team attendance records last season when they averaged 17,251 fans per game. The club ended up selling 8,806 season tickets and about 7,800 partial plans, under which a buyer must select at least 10 games, according to Lew Strudler, the team's vice president for marketing.

So far this year, ticket sales are down. Strudler uses the end of October as a reference point. The Capitals sold 8,500 season tickets by that point a year ago. Five days ago, Strudler said yesterday, the figure was about 7,800 and he estimates that 8,100 to 8,200 will be sold by the end of October. As for partial plans, the Capitals had sold about 6,500 by the start of last season. This time, he said the figure is about 5,200 and he estimates it will end up between 6,000 and 6,500.

Strudler said the Georgetown incident probably cost the Capitals "100 or 200" season ticket-holders.

The Capitals raised their tickets prices by an average of $1.50 ($25, $23, $15, $11 for single-game seats), but they are the lowest priced in the NHL. Although Bullets officials say they have not encountered many problems related to the downturn in the economy, the Capitals say some firms have declined for that reason.

Strudler has talked to hundreds of fans, and others in the organization, including Ciccarelli and Poile, have talked to people to let them air their feelings. Strudler said Ciccarelli had spoken with 24 to 36 individuals and numerous groups.

Nancy Loving, who took her 8-year-old son, Charlie, to about 15 games and then all seven playoff games last season, wrote a series of letters to the Capitals. She "felt embarrassed and humiliated" by the incident, enraged by the organization's "silence" during the investigation and by the "lukewarm" response once the grand jury made its decision. The players' collective statement that the grand jury decision "confirms our innocence" was particularly galling to Loving.

"That made people go ballistic," said Loving, who faced a situation many parents of young fans might have encountered.

"I'm reading him a bedtime story and he says, 'Mom, what is sodomy?' " Loving said. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, God, I don't need this.' "

But Loving was one of those fans who spoke with Ciccarelli by phone and then met him at Children's Hospital, where he and Alan May were donating a check on behalf of the Capitals.

She said it took "courage" and "character" for him to discuss the situation and let her vent her anger. Although she said it did not disappear, her anger lessened and, "after agonizing for weeks," she decided to purchase a 10-game ticket plan for herself and her son.

"Maybe it was a leap of faith," she said of the decision, adding, a day later, "I just hope we can put it behind us."

Trips to Capitals games were a "family outing" for Paul Herman's family. Herman, who lives in Bethesda, found Capital Centre easy to get to and the ticket prices affordable. But Herman family outings will be elsewhere.

"I find the incident so disturbing," Herman said. "I only know what I read and hear. I don't know what is truth and what is not, but my sense is that there is some truth to both sides. But I don't want my son to think that just because you are a million-dollar player you can act in an irresponsible manner."

Ted Peters of Beltsville said he had season tickets for three years. Although he will remain a fan, he said he will not renew his tickets this year. But his anger comes from the other direction.

"I canceled in protest of the way the organization handled the whole thing," Peters said. "They stayed back and let everybody take potshots at the players. The press went everywhere trying to dig up dirt.

"The organization could have said: 'We got a different story from our players and we would rather believe them than this other person.' This is my attempt at protest, however small and insignificant."