President Clinton made good on a long-standing promise to attend a Washington Capitals game, winding down his Memorial Day by taking in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Buffalo Sabres last night at MCI Center.

The outing, which was the first time a U.S. president attended an NHL game, gave him a new outlook on the sport.

"It's much more exciting in person, even, than on television -- no offense to ESPN," Clinton told ESPN's Brian Hayward during the second intermission. "I'm having the time of my life. I love this. It's fascinating."

Clinton watched from the suite of Capitals owner Abe Pollin and was joined by Vice President Gore and his son, Albert, and some of New York's more influential hockey fans: Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo.

The President sat on the front row of the open-air suite next to Moynihan in the first period and munched on chilled shrimp, watching and listening attentively as Moynihan pointed out key moments in the game.

The Sabres took a 1-0 led in the period, but the President displayed no partiality.

The President disappeared inside the suite for much of the second period, but returned during the second intermission to wave at the crowd and shake hands with several fans who crowded in front of the suite, under the watchful eye of several Secret Service agents.

He autographed hats, NHL sweaters and ticket stubs for several youngsters inside the suite. "The Capitals are playing very well," Clinton told ESPN. "They're playing very aggressive. And Buffalo's got that goalie. Unbelievable. So I think it's going to be a very close series."

Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said he was thrilled by the President's visit and thought his ESPN interview was wonderful.

"For any new hockey fan, watching on TV is one thing, but getting to a game live and seeing how fast and creative it is -- it's the best way to sell the sport," Wilson said. "If we can have the President of the United States supporting the NHL and hopefully the Washington Capitals, I think that's great for our game. It's great for our city. If our fans, who haven't come out in droves exactly, think that the President thinks it's cool, maybe everybody will think it's going to be the hot thing to do -- to go to a hockey game.

"He should come to the next game. You know, there's more to sports than Arkansas basketball."

Clinton was on his feet, clapping along with the crowd, when Joe Juneau scored in the third period to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead.

Gore attended the first Capitals game played at MCI Center, a 3-2 overtime victory over the Florida Panthers on Dec. 5. Clinton has attended Washington Wizards games.

Said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who joined the president in the suite: "I'm delighted that the country's number one and number two fans have chosen to spend time with the coolest game on Earth."

Pollin, joined by his wife, Irene, was equally thrilled.

"Every time the President or the Vice President has attended one of our games, we've won," he said. Painting the Town

The rowdiest bunch of fans wore red grease paint on their faces, sported Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys and occupied nearly all of Section 411. They were students from Chat Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, in town to celebrate their high school graduation. Of the 120 students who made the seven-hour drive, 70 attended last night's game.

The group was hard to miss, dangling a hand-lettered sign that read, "The Cup belongs in Canada," waving their Canadian flag and chanting "Let's Go Buffalo! Let's Go Buffalo!" Section 413 countered with cheers of, "USA! USA!" Sign of the Times

Capitals season ticket holder Meredith Maclay hasn't missed a home playoff game this season. And her record for getting on TV is nearly as good. Her secret? The hand-lettered signs she brings to each game. Last night, she carried two into the stands, which read: "Niagara Falls and So Will Buffalo" and "Buffalo: The Next Endangered Species."

"I should have gone into advertising," Maclay said, as she made her way to her seat in Section 100. "But I'm just a dull doctor." Maclay came to the game directly from emergency room duty. She took her signs with her there, too.

"The patients love them," she said. . . .

Unlike Saturday night's crowd, the bunch that turned out for Game 2 didn't exactly fill MCI Center to capacity. There were scattered empty spots in all sections, from the rafters to the choice seats by center ice.

As late as 10 minutes before game time, fans could buy four tickets together in Section 110 -- just about the best in the building -- on Row B. Staff writer George Solomon and special correspondent Josh Barr contributed to this report. CAPTION: Capitals owner Abe Pollin ushers President Clinton to his seat. He is the first U.S. president to attend an NHL game.