Let me see if I've got this straight. Because of a conflict with open dates in the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals will not have Games 1 and 2 at home in Washington, like they should. Because Mellon Arena is already rented out to a "WWF Smackdown" wrestling show, a two-day Latin dance concert called "Burn The Floor" and a barnstorming ice show with Olympic figure skaters, the NHL has juggled the playoff schedule to accommodate the Penguins. The Capitals will play Game 1 at home, then go to Pittsburgh for Games 2 and 3.

Hello? Anybody home?

The Capitals play 82 games to secure home ice advantage, and then they lose it so everyone in western Pennsylvania can watch the tango?

Are you kidding me?

Whaddya mean the Penguins can't get in their own building?

There's no NBA team in Pittsburgh to share dates with. Who's playing in Mellon Arena, the Pirates? The ABL Condors? Artie Heyman and the Rhythm Kings? What else is in Pittsburgh?

If the people who run Mellon Arena thought so little of the Penguins' chances to make the playoffs that they booked other gigs the week of the opening round, why should the Caps have to suffer?

Let the Penguins play in Washington until they can get into their own building. And if it takes so long that they're already eliminated, so be it. These are the NHL playoffs, not the Red Cross. Why is Gary Bettman bending over backward to give the Penguins such an advantage? I guess this is why they call Mario Lemieux "Super Mario." Because he can get the league to do whatever he wants. Everybody rooted for Lemieux to be able to buy the troubled Pittsburgh franchise and restore it to glory--but did the deal include preferential playoff scheduling?

"It doesn't look good at first," Caps defenseman Calle Johansson said of the gerrymandered schedule. "But it's a minor detail."

No, it's a joke.

The NHL has torn home ice away from the Capitals, who played 82 games to get it.

Don't tell me that the Capitals would still get four home games: Games 1, 4, 5 and 7. It's not just how many games you get, it's when you get them. Let's say the Penguins steal Game 1. The Caps won't have the luxury to regroup at home--they have to go to Pittsburgh for the next two games. They could easily be down 0-3, and the series would be all but over.

And why? Because of Brian Boitano?

Can't Michael Jordan do anything about this?

Worse yet, it appears the Caps chose this scheduling.

The Caps turned down the chance to get Games 1 and 2 at home, because the games would have been back-to-back, which the Caps didn't want because they are older than the Penguins. They feared Pittsburgh's fresher legs on successive nights--particularly in a scenario that would require the Caps to play three games in less than four full days, because Game 3 would be an afternoon game.

Clearly, all the scenarios punished the Capitals in some way, and accommodated the Penguins. Here are the Caps, the second seed--with the league's best home record--and they're being jerked around. The Caps apparently decided the guts of the series would come in Games 4 and 5, which they wanted in Washington, separated by a full day's rest. Still, giving away Game 2 . . .

"The only bad part is if you happen to drop the first game," Johansson conceded. "But you can't think like that."

Maybe you can't.

I can.

Historically, it doesn't take much for the Capitals to lose to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. They have done it four of the five times they've met in the playoffs--and they've done it in excruciating style. Twice the Caps have blown a 3-1 lead in games. Another time the Caps were up 2-0 in games--winning the first two on the road!--and were swept from there. Do you want to be depressed? The Caps won the first game in each playoff series. What good does it do?

I know what you're saying: This season it won't matter, because the Capitals have been so good, especially at home. The Caps have the NHL's best record at home: 26-7-8. The Caps have an even better home record within the conference: 23-5-3.

But the conference team they've made the worst showing against this season is Pittsburgh; they're 1-3 with the Penguins. Therefore, the team the Caps can least afford to give away a home game to early is Pittsburgh.

Did I mention Pittsburgh has Jaromir Jagr?

It's not like the Caps are a good bet to outscore Pittsburgh. It's not like the Caps are a good bet to outscore anybody. Of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams, only Buffalo has fewer goals than the Caps. Wait, it gets worse: The Caps' leading goal scorer is Chris Simon, with 29. That's the lowest number of goals for any of these teams' top scorer. The Caps' No. 2 goal scorer is Peter Bondra, 21. That's the lowest number of goals for the No. 2 scorer on any of the East's playoff teams. Ditto with Richard Zednik's 19 goals at No. 3. So obviously, the Capitals have done it with defense, goaltending and a thorough understanding of how to function as a team. They have been the East's best team since Christmas.

Until this deliberate schedule sabotage, the playoffs appeared tailored to the Caps. They had left so many teams in their wake since Christmas; they had caught, passed and intimidated Florida in their own division, and shot from 11th in the conference in total points to third. The two teams ahead of them, Philadelphia and New Jersey, are notorious playoff choking dogs. (Oh, did I say that?) In 1997, 1998 and 1999 New Jersey finished first overall in the Eastern Conference--and got bounced from the playoffs in either the first or second round. The Flyers went out in the first round in 1998 and 1999; in 1996, when Philly finished first overall in the East, they got booted in the second round. The sense of panic in New Jersey and Philly is such that the Devils fired their coach a couple of weeks ago, and a few days later the Flyers stripped the captain's "C" from Eric Lindros. So there is room at the rail for the Caps.

One of the things we have wondered about for years is what it would take for Washington to be a hockey town.

Home games might help.

Join Tony Kornheiser online at 2 p.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com for "The Tony and Mike Show."