General Manager George McPhee returned to the Washington Capitals' Piney Orchard facility yesterday for the first time in a month and immediately went to work, meeting with each of his players individually following practice. Some discussions lasted just a few minutes; others took considerably longer.

"I just wanted the players' comments and feedback on what they think we've been doing right, and what we haven't been doing right," McPhee said. "I was impressed with their comments. A general response was identified and they recognized we're not going to be a high-scoring team and we have to play well defensively.

"And playing well defensively really has nothing to do with skill, and everything to do with commitment. And, secondly, their comments and body language indicated, I think, that morale is good. They know they're playing better and they're working themselves out of this cycle."

McPhee wasn't able to attend games or practices or communicate with anyone in the organization during a month-long suspension for a preseason altercation with the Chicago Blackhawks. The suspension ended Monday, and McPhee was eager to touch base with his struggling team, which is winless in its past six games (0-5-1) and 2-6-2 overall.

McPhee will see the Capitals play in person for the first time this season tonight, when they host Ottawa at MCI Center. While there have been a few bright spots, there is much more to improve on as they seek to find more offensive balance and tighten up one of the league's worst defenses. The Capitals are averaging just over two goals per game--near the bottom of the NHL--and are allowing over 3.5 goals a game--second worst in the league. After 10 games they have the same record as the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.

The team's new primary owners--Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky--are hoping the Capitals can show signs of improvement during an upcoming stretch in which they play seven of eight games at MCI Center. If they do not make strides, changes could be made, though McPhee said he has little interest in the free agents available. Making a quality trade would be difficult as well, because key veterans such as Adam Oates and Andrei Nikolishin are off to poor starts, while players other general managers covet--inexpensive prospects such as Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik--are basically untouchable, McPhee said. There are no quick fixes here.

"Every team in this league wants to add something, and we're all looking," McPhee said. "But you can't just go out and grab an elite player from another team. It doesn't work that way."

Coach Ron Wilson also is analyzing the situation closely and making daily adjustments. He spent considerable time consulting with his defense during yesterday's practice, urging them to play tougher in their own end and also chip in more offensively. The defense has scored just two goals (both from Calle Johansson), fewest in the NHL. The defensemen shot pucks through chopped up car tires at yesterday's practice, working on getting more shots through traffic and on net, where forwards can capitalize on loose pucks and rebounds.

Wilson altered his system during the Capitals' recent road trip, having his centers assume more of a defensive role to help cut down on breakaways and odd-man rushes, and it worked. He also asked his wingers to drive harder to the net and absorb more punishment around the crease, but he needs the defense to do a better job of joining the rush up ice and getting shots on goal.

"We talked about philosophical things," Wilson said. "[Such as] not leaving your feet when you don't have to. Our job is not to block shots, it's to block people going to the net. We were just making sure we're all on the same page. On the road we were working on more teaching about the right way to do things, and we're starting to pick up on it."

Capitals Notes: Rookie forward Alexandre Volchkov, who looked overwhelmed in his three NHL games, and veteran defenseman Jamie Huscroft were returned to Portland and center Glen Metropolit and defenseman Alexei Tezikov were recalled. Wilson said both youngsters will be in the lineup tonight. . . .

The Capitals have been outscored 25-14 when playing five-on-five this season.