When defenseman Sergei Gonchar led a charge up ice, broke deftly to the crease and dished to a wide-open Jan Bulis for an easy tap-in goal during the Washington Capitals' first scrimmage yesterday, management saw visions of what could be this season. It was just one play in a meaningless game only a few days into training camp, but the team hopes it's an omen.

If the Capitals are to return to the playoffs, Gonchar, Bulis and their young talented teammates such as Yogi Svejkovsky and Richard Zednik must help take the offensively-strapped club there. Yesterday, their talent was impossible to overlook. Gonchar was the best player on the ice during the scrimmage and set up the only goal in a high-tempo affair that showcased the team's infusion of youth and fleet feet.

"Gonchar to Bulis, or Bulis to Gonchar, I could get used to that," Coach Ron Wilson said. "Sergei's got incredible skills. He had a great season last year considering he only played 50 games or so, and as he matures as a hockey player and also as a person then his consistency is going to improve."

The coaches were enthused by the overall level of play. Veterans such as Dale Hunter, Kelly Miller, Michal Pivonka, Brian Bellows and Mark Tinordi are gone, and the Capitals plan to be a more fluid, more explosive team this season, though they admit they aren't there yet. The Capitals feel the game is changing, especially with new rule changes in place this season.

Teams now will play overtime at four-on-four, opening up more ice and putting a heavy emphasis on skating and stickhandling skills. And with one fewer roster spot available to teams (from 24 to 23 players), it's more difficult to find a spot for plodders.

"Speed is so important now," General Manager George McPhee said. "You can't get by with role players who can't really skate well anymore. We're making a real effort to get faster throughout our organization."

Still Up For Grabs

Competition for the final roster spots won't really heat up until the exhibition games begin next weekend. Four forwards (Jeff Halpern, Jeff Toms, Matt Herr and Glen Metropolit) are fighting for the final two spots up front, and five defensemen (Jamie Huscroft, Rob Zettler, Alexei Tezikov, Steve Shirreffs and Nolan Baumgartner) are competing to be the team's seventh defenseman. Huscroft and Zettler are NHL veterans, while the others have little or no NHL experience.

"If it happens to be that the seventh defenseman is a really young guy, I wouldn't be really comfortable with that," Wilson said. "Because they should play every day rather than have a young guy as a seventh. If it's a young player, I'd prefer they earn a spot on our team as a regular in our top six."

More Talks

The Tampa Bay Lightning told the Capitals they would call on Monday to possibly continue talks about acquiring Pivonka. . . . Talks continue between the Capitals and Zednik, a restricted free agent. . . . All four goaltenders in yesterday's primary scrimmage looked sharp, especially considering it's the first time they've faced consistent shots. Olaf Kolzig played 20 minutes and made four key saves from close range. "The goaltending was outstanding," Wilson said. "All the goalies looked razor sharp." . . . Unrestricted free agent Tinordi watched part of yesterday's scrimmage. McPhee said the Capitals have not contacted Tinordi's agent and are not pursuing him. . . . An annual rite of fall, the first training camp fight, took place between minor leaguers Louis Bedard and Jason Shmyr.