As an immigrant in 1986, Michal Pivonka had a grand time in his first National Hockey League season with the Washington Capitals, compiling 43 points. Everybody thought all was velmi dobre, as they might say in Pivonka's hometown of Kladno, Czechoslovakia.

But all that seemed well was not.

"My first year was all right for a rookie," Pivonka said yesterday after practice. "I expected the second year to be better. It wasn't."

The difficult adjustment to hockey and life in North America kicked in after the first season. Now, as Pivonka begins his fifth season, the Capitals are hoping the adjustment period is over and the scoring has just begun.

Last season Pinvonka had personal highs in goals (25), assists (39) and points (64). But when he was drafted in 1984, many thought he would do more. The Capitals are hoping this will be the year.

"What we talked about in the offseason and in contract negotiations was the idea of arriving at a level of consistency that would make us happy, him successful and the team successful," General Manager David Poile said of Pivonka, who recently agreed to a new three-year contract (two years, plus an option). "This is the year he should be getting to the 30-goal, one point-a-game plateau."

Pivonka knows the expectations.

"I had my best year last year, but I still know I can do better," he said. "It doesn't mean that if I score 25 goals I will stop."

Pivonka defected in July 1986 and played 73 games with the Capitals that season. But the following year, Bengt Gustafsson returned from his one-year hiatus in Sweden and Pivonka dropped on the depth chart. He had 11 goals and 23 assists in 1987-88 and then played half of the next season in Baltimore.

"Mentally, you just have to keep pushing yourself," Pivonka said.

This summer, when the Capitals traded left wing Geoff Courtnall to St. Louis for center Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor, a spot opened on the left wing. The Capitals are hoping that Pivonka will flourish on that side, with center Dale Hunter and right wing John Druce.

Pivonka scored his first goal of the season in Saturday night's 6-4 victory over Detroit, using a nice move between two defensemen.

"He's capable of doing that; it was an excellent move," Capitals Coach Terry Murray said. "He's got the size, strength and speed to do those things. The only thing I want him to do is read the play and make sure the timing is right."

Murray is hoping to avoid some of the two-on-ones and three-on-twos that developed in the first two games, but he doesn't want to stifle artistic freedom.

"I want to encourage him to carry the puck and be creative," said Murray, who said he also wants to see Pivonka shoot more. "In the European style, sometimes guys worry about setting up a teammate and make one extra pass."

The dramatic political changes in Eastern Europe made it possible for Pivonka to return home this summer for the first time.

"It's only been four years and not really a lot has changed back home," Pivonka said. "I was happy I could see all the friends I haven't seen and stay with my family for a couple of weeks. There's nothing you can really see right away with what happened {politically}. It's just that the feeling of the people is that they can do whatever they want. They are going to suffer some because prices will go up. It's going to take awhile, but everybody is going to be happier. Not next year, but 10 years for sure."

Pivonka declined to discuss the more secret details of how the Capitals got him and his wife Renata out of Czechoslovakia.

"It's not so much cloak and dagger, but it was a defection and we agreed we wouldn't say anything," Poile said.

The government change allowed Peter Bondra -- along with his wife Luba and daughter Petra -- to leave Czechoslovakia and join the Capitals for only a fee to the country's hockey federation.

"I'm just trying to help him as much as I can because I know how he feels," said Pivonka.

He has translated for Bondra, who knew little English, while also helping with little details like car insurance.

"He's the kind of guy that takes it as it goes," Pivonka said. "He knows his English will get better. I told him to concentrate on hockey and everything else will pick up."

Pivonka seems to enjoy looking out for Bondra. It may be a mirror for him because he can see himself when he first arrived.

And the change to being North American, in hockey and life, is occurring. Craig Laughlin, now a color commentator for Home Team Sports, was one of the first players Pivonka met when he arrived.

"It was just, 'Hi. Hi. No. No,' " Laughlin said. "He came from relatively impoverished Czechoslovakia. Now, he's Americanized."

Indeed, like many affluent Americans, Pivonka drives a luxury car, complete with all the usual accessories. He has made friends here. He and Mike Ridley worked out together during the summer. In short, he has adapted well and eventually may apply for citizenship.

"It depends on how things look at home," Pivonka said. "I have my green card, so I can work here. When I came over, it was bad at home and the United States let me stay. I'm not sure I will {apply} but I will think about."