Last season, Washington Capitals talented defenseman Sergei Gonchar did not score his first goal until Dec. 12. He's hoping not to duplicate that feat. Gonchar, who failed to score in his first 15 games this season, returned from a muscle strain injury last night and played for the first time in two weeks.

Gonchar is being groomed as a franchise defenseman with the expectation he would join the league's elite this season after ranking among league leaders with 21 goals and 13 power-play goals last season--all scored in his final 40 games (a contract impasse and knee injury sidelined Gonchar for much of the first two months of the season).

"I'm excited to be back, and I look forward to playing again," Gonchar said. "I watch all the games while I was out, and we play good teams like New Jersey and Dallas, I see how the defensemen play in the league and I feel like I can play as good as any one of them. I look forward to coming back and playing because in the beginning, things didn't go so well for me. I have so many chances and don't score, so hopefully I come back and play good games."

The coaches were getting frustrated by Gonchar's enigmatic play early this season, especially mental mistakes made near Washington's net. Gonchar feels his game has improved as the season has progressed and believes he can pick up his offense to the level he reached late last season.

"Sometimes you are going to have bad luck," Gonchar said. "Sometimes the puck does not go in for you. I'm trying to work hard every game, and I think I will be lucky enough to score some goals and hopefully the whole picture is going to come together and I'm going to play well. I think I start playing better defense and pay a little bit more attention to it. I think everything is coming together." . . .

The Capitals sent Nolan Baumgartner to Portland to make room for Gonchar. . . . Tickets for home games from Jan. 1 until the end of the season go on sale today and can be purchased through TicketMaster or at the MCI Center box office. . . . The Capitals will be collecting unwrapped toys at the Dec. 2 game to donate to less fortunate children. . . . Fans who donate a winter coat at the Dec. 13 game will receive a free Capitals hat. . . . The starting time for the final home game of the season, April 9 against Buffalo, has been moved to noon. . . . Though no official announcement has been made, Yvon Labre, the team's director of community relations, is reportedly ending his 25-year association with the club at the end of the calendar year to pursue other interests.

Capitals vs. N.Y. Islanders

When: 7.

Where: Nassau Coliseum.

TV: HTS.

Radio: WRC-570.

Records: Capitals 8-9-4, 21 points; Islanders 5-10-3, 13 points.

Goalies: Capitals' Olaf Kolzig (6-8-4, 3.12 GAA) vs. Islanders' Felix Potvin (5-9-2, 2.90.)

Injuries: Capitals C Jan Bulis (rib muscle strain) is probable, RW Joe Sacco (bruised leg) is out); D Joe Reekie (foot) and D Jamie Huscroft (ribs) are out. Islanders D Eric Brewer (toe) and G Wade Flaherty (shoulder) are doubtful.