In all likelihood, Washington Capitals prospect Miika Elomo will make his NHL debut tonight, completing a most circuitous route to the world's premier hockey league. Many members of the organization, and even Elomo himself, have wondered if he would reach this level after struggling mightily since being selected 23rd overall in the 1995 draft.

Elomo, a 22-year-old winger, entered training camp six weeks ago not knowing where he would play, and was hardly a lock to open the season with Washington's top affiliate, the Portland Pirates. He was not in uniform for any of Washington's preseason games and was no longer viewed as a top prospect.

But after scoring six goals in his first five games in Portland (he had nine goals in 88 previous AHL games), Elomo has an opportunity to show he can produce in the NHL.

Elomo, who was recalled from Portland yesterday because of Yogi Svejkovsky's groin injury and skated with Adam Oates and Ulf Dahlen during practice, can get things started beginning tonight at MCI Center against a solid San Jose Sharks team. The Capitals figure Elomo needs at least another season in the minors, but he's already come a long way fast.

"He's been [Portland's] best player by a country mile," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "And Yogi doesn't appear to be 100 percent. . . . I'm not putting people in who are not 100 percent when we can use people who are. Especially with a groin, I don't think there's any reason to take a risk."

Elomo, a good skater who has bulked up his 6-foot frame to 198 pounds, has spent much of the last two seasons in his native Finland, where his hockey career began. In 1991-92 he played in the Canadian junior leagues, bounced around between the Finish junior league and the second division for three seasons and spent 1996-97 in Portland. By the middle of the 1997-98 season it was apparent he wasn't ready for the AHL, so he returned to Finland.

"We'll take the fall for that," said director of hockey operations Shawn Simpson, who watched four of the five games Elomo played this season. "We brought him over here too young, and to his credit he's improved his entire game. He's back on course where he was when we drafted him."

Generally, when a player makes the move from a North American minor league back to Europe, it's a sure sign his career is in peril, but it ended up saving Elomo's.

"Definitely, it was very good for me to go back home," Elomo said. "I'm really happy they let me go back and I think that was a really good thing for me. I'm older now, I have more games behind me, I'm stronger and I would say my confidence is much better."

Elomo failed to produce big numbers upon his return to Finland (nine goals and 20 points in 52 games), but he matured and is better conditioned to handle the rigors of North American hockey. He developed into a much better two-way player and played on a championship team. With Svejkovsky's injury not believed to be serious (he skated yesterday), this might be a brief stint for Elomo, but either way, his future looks brighter now than it did a month ago.

"He's been using his speed and he's scoring, and I think that's important for our lineup," Wilson said. "Because everybody questions our ability to score goals, and if we're starting to develop people [in Portland] who are capable of stepping up and doing it up here, we'd like to reward them. And you never know, sometimes guys score down there and don't up here, but its an opportunity for him.

"You have to remember, he's still only 22 years old. He's still very young."

Capitals Notes: Wilson said the biggest problem with the Capitals' woeful penalty killing (13 for 20) this season has been crucial turnovers in their own zone, especially failing to clear the blue line when attempting a dump down ice. "We haven't responded well when we turn the puck over," Wilson said. "We hand the puck right back to them." San Jose has converted better than 25 percent of its power plays. . . .

Simpson said Alexandre Volchkov, like Elomo a struggling former first-round pick, has been Portland's second-best player. . . .

Left wing Steve Konowalchuk has joined Andrei Nikolishin and Peter Bondra on the top line. . . .

The Capitals completed filming their new TV commercials Thursday. The spots, which will air on ESPN, CNN and other stations, are witty scenarios where the players and coaches are put in non-hockey situations. . . .

San Jose forward Owen Nolan has seven goals, tied for the league lead, and his team is tops in the NHL with 27 goals scored. . . . Sharks goalie Steve Shields stopped 51 of 52 shots in a 5-1 win at Nashville Thursday, and has a stellar .965 save percentage.

CAPITALS VS. SHARKS

PREVIEW

Game: Washington Capitals (2-1-1) vs. San Jose Sharks (5-2).

Where: MCI Center.

When: 7 p.m.

Tickets: Available.

TV: HTS.

Radio: WRC-570.

Probable Goalies: Capitals -- Olaf Kolzig (2-1-1, 2.95 GAA); Sharks -- Steve Shields (4-1-0, 1.24).

Injuries: Capitals LW Yogi Svejkovsky (groin) is doubtful. Sharks D Bryan Marchment (knee) and D Jeff Norton (back) are out.