Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee said yesterday that his first order of business following a month-long suspension is to inspire better play from his veterans and stem a six-game losing streak that has the team in last place in the Southeast Division.

"They're nowhere near where they are capable of playing," said McPhee of Adam Oates, Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Nikolishin. "The veteran guys have to play better. . . . Sometimes veterans start slow. They're better at the 30-, 40-, 50-game mark than they are right out of the gate sometimes. I want to talk to those guys and see what they're thinking."

It was McPhee's first visit to his MCI Center office in downtown Washington after serving the suspension and paying a $20,000 fine, imposed by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for striking Chicago Blackhawks Coach Lorne Molleken after a preseason game last month. The fight started after McPhee visited the Chicago locker room to complain that the Blackhawks were playing unnecessarily rough.

"I went down to the other team's locker room with all the right intentions and approached it, in my mind, in a very civil fashion--I did not want a physical confrontation," McPhee said. "I'm sorry it happened, but I can't regret standing up for what I think as a manager was right for this team or this league. I didn't think what the other club was doing was what we're supposed to be doing in this game."

McPhee said he spent most of his suspension, which prohibited him from going to games or practices or talking to anyone within the organization, watching six NHL games a night via satellite television and studying the Capitals' organization and draft picks.

Despite the team's 2-6-2 record, McPhee said he believes the Capitals can win the division title. He attributed some of the team's early problems to its schedule and said he expects the team to start playing more cohesively as the season wears on.

"We aren't playing our best hockey," McPhee said. "I've seen this before with other clubs and they've had good years. Unfortunately, it's happened right off the bat and it's hard when it happens right out of the gate. But we've only played 10 games and it's an 82-game schedule."

The team will play better together when it has more back-to-back games and three games in four nights, which helps get the players in better rhythm, he said.

"I'm not letting [the players] off the hook, but I don't like the way our schedule has been laid out," he said. ". . . There's too much time between games. We've had stretches of four or five days when we haven't played and it's not enough playing time."

But McPhee said he was happy with the team's play Sunday night, despite losing, 2-1, to the San Jose Sharks. He said a new defensive style that forces the opposition to move the puck toward the side should help win games.