The Washington Capitals are cautiously optimistic that they could have a full complement of players by the end of next week. Defenseman Joe Reekie, and wingers Peter Bondra and Chris Simon are making strides in their recovery from various injuries--Simon and Reekie practiced with the team yesterday for the first time in weeks.

Reekie has missed the most time. He has played in 10 of 27 games and missed 15 of the last 17 after blocking a shot with his foot Oct. 31. Reekie returned for two games shortly after that but has not played since Nov. 19. He had been wearing a walking cast but is skating now and participated in half of yesterday's 90-minute practice.

Simon and Bondra were not expected to miss significant time. Simon fell awkwardly while getting hit on Nov. 27 and has not played since, suffering what the Capitals say is a sprained neck. He did not skate for a week, but was on the ice for the entire practice yesterday and seems closest to returning.

Bondra had been bothered by a sore knee all season and had minor arthroscopic surgery a week ago to repair a ligament tear. He was expected to miss two to three weeks, but he is a fast healer and already is running and doing complete off-ice workouts.

Simon hopes to play by the weekend; Bondra hopes to begin skating Tuesday if cleared by team doctors Monday.

"With [Simon] it's a matter of every day doing a little bit more," Coach Ron Wilson said. "It's a matter of getting him in shape and ready to play by the end of the week. We'll get him some good workouts and hopefully he'll be ready to go. On Tuesday, Peter will go on the ice and we'll see where he stands. I'm optimistic at the two-week mark he might be ready to play."

Reekie's recovery will take the longest. With his prolonged absence from the lineup, he will need ample practice time to get his conditioning to game levels. It's unlikely he will play this week, Wilson said, but he could play on the two-game trip to western Canada before the Christmas break. Reekie is expected to participate in a full practice Tuesday.

Bondra's injury is the most profound, considering he has nearly twice as many goals as any of his teammates and the team has scored just 15 goals in the last eight games. Bondra was on crutches for only one day and already is squatting, riding a stationary bike and doing sliding exercises without discomfort. "I hope I can play next week," he said.

For the most part, the Capitals have escaped significant injuries, slowly eliminating what had become a huge problem for the organization this decade. One of the primary goals this season was to curtail the number of man-games missed. The team brought in a new training staff, led by head trainer Greg Smith and team physician Ben Shaffer. The Capitals implemented new stretching and conditioning programs, altering their practice routines. The repetitive injuries that dogged the team last season have not been a problem.

The Capitals led the NHL with 476 man-games missed in 1997-98 and set an unofficial NHL record with 511 man-games missed last season. They have missed more than 1,000 man-games since the start of the 1997-98 season--300 more than any other NHL team in that span. This season, excluding the man-games missed attributed to minor leaguer Trevor Halverson (who spent time on the NHL's injured reserved while recovering from a concussion), the team has missed 53 man-games, putting them near the bottom of the league.

Capitals Notes: Wilson broke up the monotony of practice yesterday by setting up small games of three-on-three using a tennis ball instead of a puck. Even the goalies got in the act. "The ball is bouncing the whole time," center Andrei Nikolishin said. "You try to catch it and it's pretty good for the hands. It's good for stick-handling. It's good for coordination. I practiced with a ball when I was little. We didn't have an ice rink where I live in Russia so we play hockey in the snow and we use a ball." . . .

Defenseman Alexei Tezikov played Friday night and last night in Portland and will return to Washington today. . . . Prospect Miika Elomo had a hat trick for Portland Friday, continuing his breakout season.