The Washington Capitals huddled at center ice for 15 minutes yesterday afternoon, their final practice of the preseason just completed and their chance to begin erasing visions of last season less than 48 hours away. Their season opens tonight against the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., and the Capitals hope each victory will bring fewer references to what transpired last season, and fewer haunting flashbacks.

For five months, images of defeats, injuries and a half-empty MCI Center buzzed through their heads. Summer was nothing like the year before, when the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in team history and expectations were high. Missing the playoffs and suffering through a record 511 man-games lost to injuries quickly changed that. Coming to the rink became a chore. Practices dragged. Hockey wasn't much fun anymore.

"I remember the whole season was bad," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "We never got in a good flow--we always struggled. It was uphill, and we're not going to do that this year. We want to be on top right from the start. Instead of at Christmas time looking up and seeing everyone ahead of us, we want to look down on other teams."

The goal is simple: win the Southeast Division and get back in the playoffs. To do that they'll have to get past Florida, a team many are picking to be among the most improved in the league. It may be just the first game of the season, but relatively speaking, it's a big one. Florida still has holes on defense and few proven goal scorers, but the Panthers nabbed a legitimate superstar in a trade with Vancouver last season.

Pavel Bure, a scoring threat each time he touches the puck, will play his first game since March 3 when he could no longer push his aching right knee. Bure underwent his second reconstructive knee surgery this summer, after scoring 13 goals in 11 games with the Panthers last season, and there's always concern that one hit could jeopardize his career. That knee will be tested early. The Panthers' offense flows through Bure, who will log heavy minutes, playing the entire two minutes of power plays and killing penalties.

"Florida and Carolina are the two main teams in our division, and that's what we have to concern ourselves with," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "We can't concern ourselves with where we are in the conference, we have to focus on the division. I think we have to approach those games as key games. Every time we play in our division, it's a big game.

"We never played Florida last year with Bure in the lineup and obviously they're going to be a different team with him. I think we've increased our speed and our youth and I think we match up pretty well with them."

The Capitals hope rookies Jeff Halpern and Glen Metropolit add spark to the lineup, and that the talented trio of Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis and Yogi Svejkovsky remains healthy and each player hits the 20-goal mark. Management believes the team will have better scoring depth and is confident that with a new set of doctors, a new training staff and new stretching and conditioning programs, players will stay healthy and avoid the recurring injuries that have plagued the organization the last few seasons.

Last season ended in silence. There was little to say. Everyone felt the same disappointment. The team had a brief meeting when the players cleaned out their lockers, but no one wanted to linger. These days, it's difficult to pry them from the rink. They hang around chatting and playing Ping-Pong. Their excitement is renewed again. Winning hockey games will keep it that way.

"At the end of the year it was best for everyone to get away from the negativity," defenseman Ken Klee said. "It mounted up on us all year and by the end it was like we were choking on it and it was too late anyway. We all had to get away and come back this year with a fresh attitude. It's a new year and we're ready to go. Everyone is ready to start fresh."

Capitals Note: NHL sources said Thursday that forward Ulf Dahlen was placed on waivers, but a team source refuted that yesterday, saying Dahlen was not put on the waiver wire and will start the season with the team. The Capitals open the season with 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies.

THE OPENER

CAPITALS at PANTHERS

When: 7:30 p.m.

Site: Sunrise, Fla.

TV: HTS.

Radio: WTEM-980.

TONIGHT'S GAME

What: Washington Capitals (0-0) at Florida Panthers (0-0).

When: 7:30 p.m.

Where: National Car Rental Center.

TV: HTS.

Radio: WTEM-980.

Injuries: Washington -- none. Florida -- LW Peter Worrell (sprained knee) is out.

Probable Goalies: Washington -- Olaf Kolzig (0-0, 0.00). Florida -- Sean Burke

(0-0, 0.00).