Sabres 4, Capitals 0

At 7:08 last night, referee Don Koharski skated to center ice at MCI Center, then dropped the puck.

Referees will repeat that action thousands of times this winter, but this opening faceoff was significant because it marked the return of the Capitals, a team Washington hadn't seen in more than 17 months.

They suffered their third defeat in three preseason games, 4-0, against the Buffalo Sabres. But many fans said before the contest that the result didn't matter.

What mattered, they said, was watching the Capitals again after being forced to live without the NHL for a year and a half. A labor dispute wiped out the 2004-05 season.

Patric Neese arrived about two hours before the game wearing his black Olaf Kolzig jersey.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Kolzig again," said the 37-year-old student from Manassas, a season ticket holder for four years. "I was coming back no matter what. I love hockey too much."

Apparently not many fans in Washington shared his sentiment.

The team announced a crowd of 10,129, but the actual attendance was likely less than half that. Even by preseason standards, the crowd was sparse, with some seating sections entirely barren. (The team averaged 14,720 fans during the 2003-04 regular season.)

"It's up to management right now to help sell the game," veteran center Jeff Halpern said after the game. "It's a joint effort. Fans will come if we win. If we don't win, if we continue to not put up much of a fight, you don't expect a lot of fans to show up."

The ones who came, however, were vocal.

"It's a new beginning," said Connie Schneider, a resident of Maryland City and president of the Washington Capitals Fan Club. "We're essentially starting over. It's exciting."

"Tonight really signifies that the NHL is back," she said, standing about two dozen rows above the ice. "Now it's real."

John Puskar, a 29-year-old resident of Hyattsville, said: "Absolutely, I'm happy they are back. It's been hellish. I'm ecstatic."

Puskar, like almost everyone else, watched a Capitals team that hardly resembled the one that lost to the New York Rangers on April 3, 2004, the team's last game at MCI Center before the lockout.

The names adorning the shoulders of fans' jerseys were emblematic of just how much the roster has turned over since then. In the mostly empty Section 415, the jerseys had the last names of Mike Grier, Peter Bondra and Jaromir Jagr, none of whom plays in Washington anymore.

Other fans, meantime, were more in fashion, wearing the jerseys of players who will be keys to the team's reconstruction, such as Halpern, Brendan Witt, Alexander Ovechkin and Kolzig.

"Fans will come back," Puskar said. "Hockey has a very loyal base, as opposed to the casual fan. That's who they need to get, the guy who is just flipping around the channels."

Fans weren't the only people happy to see hockey back at MCI Center.

"I'm very happy to see the first preseason game," said Said Yakoub, 34, the manager of Coyote Ugly, a bar across from MCI Center on 6th Street. "What that means for us, we will see."

Yakoub said that when the bar opened in February 2004, two months before the last Capitals game of the 2003-04 season, business was brisk. He said the number of customers declined "50 to 60 percent" during the lockout.

"Usually, on game nights, we get a big rush of people from 5 until 7 p.m.," Yakoub said. The lockout "was bad for everybody."

Last night's game was important for another reason: it also marked the NHL debut of Ovechkin, the Capitals' No. 1 overall pick in 2004, and linchpin of the team's rebuilding blueprint.

Ovechkin, a 20-year-old left wing, showed flashes of speed and skill the Capitals hope will make him a star in the NHL. He scored a pretty backhander during the exhibition shootout, which follows all preseason games.

"We have great chance to score, but no score," said Ovechkin, who logged five shots. "The only goal was on penalty shot. We must score."

Buffalo's Rory Fitzpatick scored the game's first goal 6 minutes 19 seconds into the game.

Sabres rookie Thomas Vanek scored late in the second period to stretch his team's lead to 2-0. Vanek tallied later in the second period to make the score 3-0, and Maxim Afinogenov made it 4-0 with a goal in the third.

Kolzig made 23 saves for Washington; Buffalo's Ryan Miller stopped all 29 shots he faced.

Capitals Notes: The Capitals announced that all 82 games will be televised, with 52 games on Comcast SportsNet and the rest on WBDC-50 and News Channel 8.

Capitals' Chris Bourque attempts to control the puck despite the hits of Sabres' Derek Roy, left, and Jay McKee, right.