Washington Capitals winger Peter Bondra tried to focus on one simple task before the game--taping his sticks--but couldn't contain himself. He bounced all over the Capitals' dressing room, chatting with teammates. He was all nervous energy, counting down the minutes until he would return from a three-week absence that felt much longer.

Last night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Bondra played for the first time since undergoing minor arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Dec. 5. He leads the team with 13 goals but was struggling the last few weeks before surgery, unable to do much beyond shoot the puck. He returns when the Capitals need him most. They brought a three-game losing streak into the game.

"I'm very excited. I miss the games and the guys. It's tough to watch on TV," Bondra said. "I'm very excited. It's been three weeks, and that's a long time. It feels even longer since I played my last game" on Dec. 4.

Bondra is now skating with Andrei Nikolishin and Richard Zednik. The Capitals have a full complement of players for the first time since October, with winger Chris Simon also back from a neck injury. Coach Ron Wilson has kept his top line intact--Ulf Dahlen, Adam Oates and Simon--and added slumping winger Yogi Svejkovsky to the combination of Steve Konowalchuk and Jan Bulis, a duo that has carried the offense through parts of this season.

Scoring goals remains Washington's biggest problem, and Bondra hopes to help correct that. He said his knee is in much better shape than it was prior to surgery.

"It definitely feels better," Bondra said. "I definitely feel better, and my mind is better. Before I couldn't go to the point where I could extend my knee, and I can do it now. The last couple of weeks before I had surgery it was in my mind a lot. You can't help it.

"I try not to think about it, and I thought I could get through the whole season, but obviously it came to a point where I was useless on the ice. I wasn't helping anybody, and hopefully I'll be able to play a different game now--not hopefully, definitely, I want to play a better game."

Fallout From Fight

The one serious repercussion from the preseason battle between Chicago and Washington--when Capitals General Manager George McPhee received a one-month suspension for striking then-Blackhawks coach Lorne Molleken--is that Capitals minor leaguer Trevor Halverson probably has played the last game of his career, McPhee said. He fought three times in that game, was knocked out by Remi Royer and has not returned from a concussion. McPhee spoke with Chicago owner Bill Wirtz after the incident, and the sides have reached an understanding, according to a team spokesman.

Oates Honored

Captain Adam Oates was honored in a pregame ceremony for playing in his 1,000th career game last week. He was presented with a silver hockey stick, a crystal vase and a painting.