In the unlikely event the NHL season starts on time -- or if there is one at all, considering the expected work stoppage this fall -- the Washington Capitals will get a break. They will avoid the lengthy October road trip that has derailed them in recent seasons, according to the 2004-05 schedule released by the league yesterday.

Washington is slated to open the season in Atlanta on Oct. 16, then host the Thrashers three days later at MCI Center. Thirteen of the Capitals' first 19 games are at home.

The grueling stretch comes in March, when MCI Center hosts the ACC men's basketball tournament. The Capitals' first road trip of the month is staggering -- seven cities in 13 days. In all, Washington will play 11 of 16 games in March away from home, a span that includes four pairs of back-to-back games and a trip to western Canada.

There are also the traditional home dates. The Capitals play the day before and after Thanksgiving, hosting Philadelphia and the New York Rangers on Nov. 24 and 26, respectively; Pittsburgh on New Year's; and a matinee against Boston on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 6).

Washington hosts Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay three times (Dec. 26, Feb. 8 and April 2.)

The schedule is contingent on a new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players association. The current deal expires on Sept. 15 and the sides appear increasingly at odds.

-- Tarik El-Bashir