On his first shift of the preseason Tuesday night, Washington Capitals forward Richard Zednik stormed to the net and left Carolina Hurricanes goalie Arturs Irbe guessing blindly. His next time on the ice, Zednik scorched a puck that appeared to strike the post and crossbar -- a shot so potent many sitting behind the net believe it actually smacked a bar that runs along the roof of the net, fooling the goal judge. This occurred after Zednik had endured a five-month hiatus from the NHL. This was precisely what the Capitals wanted to see.

Zednik, 23, has been in town only about two weeks, missing the start of training camp while a contract was being negotiated. He spent much of the time following the Capitals' woeful 1998-99 season in his native Slovakia, working out, skating, playing tennis and, recently, practicing with a club team near his home. He appears to be in great shape -- injury-free, wealthy (he signed a three-year, $2.1 million deal) and driven to fulfill the heavy expectations of an organization desperate for goal scoring. Fellow Slovakia native Peter Bondra is Washington's only proven scorer and the Capitals hope Zednik will find a consistency to match his superior skill level, forcing teams to respect more than just the Capitals' top line.

"I've been really happy with what I've seen from Zed," Coach Ron Wilson said. "I thought he played great the other night. He takes the puck to the net like nobody else. He had a couple of great chances. I just keep my fingers crossed that this is his year and put him in situations where he's going to be successful and hope the puck goes in.

"He has to just keep hammering away and work hard every night. There's no magic solution to it -- Zed's shown that if he's healthy, focused and concentrating, he's a very good player. With young guys consistency is sometimes a question mark. Hopefully, he's going to be more consistent this year. We know he wants to score. Zed is the happiest guy in the world when he scores; I'd like to see him really happy."

Zednik, entering his third full season with the Capitals, was the 249th pick in the 1994 draft, and scored 79 goals in 126 junior hockey games. The right winger can be a demon with the puck, fueled by some of the most powerful legs in the league -- trunks that make him tough to knock off the puck and a force along the boards. Zednik's speed and creative flair complement an affinity for bulling his way to the net. At 6 feet, 200 pounds, he led all NHL rookies in goals, points and power-play goals in the 1998 playoffs, and scored 17 goals in 65 games with Washington in 1997-98. Last season, shoulder and groin problems limited him to 49 games and 17 points.

With that in mind, the Capitals took every precaution with him in camp, knowing a player who missed the first 10 days of practice would rush to catch up. Wilson cringed while watching Atlanta Falcons Coach Dan Reeves field questions about star running back Jamal Anderson, who suffered a season-ending injury in his second game after being a training camp holdout. Of course, Zednik, who is skating with Jan Bulis and Steve Konowalchuk, couldn't wait to hit the ice and strut his stuff, and pushed to play in last Saturday's game. He was rebuffed.

But you can't blame the guy for trying. After all, he's only helping carry the weight of a nation. At least that's how it seemed this summer in Slovakia. The Capitals' poor season was big news there, especially since Zednik and Bondra whipped up a patriotic fury the previous spring when the Capitals marched to their first Stanley Cup finals. Over the past few months, there weren't as many pats on the back from random strangers, just more questions and more explanations.

"Before, everybody came up to me at home after a long playoff and was happy for me," Zednik said. "And this summer everyone came up to me and said, `What happened?' They were disappointed. A lot of people cheer for us because we have two Slovakian players and when we made Stanley Cup we made a lot of fans and now they watch our games and say, `What happened?' People I don't even know ask me. So, hopefully, we're going to play better and stay healthier.

"It's just good to be back on the ice and playing with the guys after five months. It was a long time away from the guys, and I worked hard to get ready for the season and hopefully, I'll be ready for the first game. Now is the time for me to do it. I have to put up some numbers and play good every night."

Either way, he'll hear about it next summer. Slovakia is watching.

Capitals Notes: Owner Ted Leonsis announced last night the team's plans for the upcoming season, including a revamped Web site. Leonsis will chat online live from the season opener in Florida Saturday. Leonsis, who was informed by the NHL not to reveal season ticket sales figures, said he expects the figure to increase 150 percent from this time a year ago. . . . The Capitals are likely to move a depth defenseman today before finalizing their roster to start the season. They will trim down to the mandatory 23-man roster today. . . . Leonsis persuaded HTS and WBDC-50 to television two additional games, bringing the total to 56.