If Alexander Ovechkin is the future of the Washington Capitals, Olie Kolzig remains the face of the team. The 35-year-old Kolzig, who has been in the Capitals organization for 18 years and the club's top goaltender for most of the past 10 seasons, sat sweaty and drained in front of his locker Wednesday night following the NHL's return after missing an entire season because of an owner-instigated lockout.

On this night, while Russian phenom Ovechkin thrilled the crowd of 16,325 fans at MCI Center with two goals in his NHL debut, it was Kolzig who saved the night with 35 saves as the Capitals defeated Columbus, 3-2, in the first game of what likely will be his most difficult season.

"We're green in the back end," observed Kolzig, saying in hockey-speak that the Capitals have a lot of inexperienced defensemen who may not yet be good enough to keep the league's better attackers from making his life difficult -- if not miserable -- this season. Still, Kolzig was not complaining; few hockey players are, after an 18-month NHL hiatus that saw many players, including Kolzig, ply their trade last season for less money in Europe.

"Guys appreciate what they have," Kolzig said of the layoff and new rules designed to open up the game, as will a shootout after a five-minute overtime that will eliminate ties. "Goaltenders will face more scoring chances, so the defense will have to be more disciplined."

If most preseason prognosticators are picking the Caps to finish at the bottom of the league, Kolzig and his coach, Glen Hanlon, aren't buying it. "I don't have to worry about motivating our guys," said Hanlon last week about the slights.

"Look," Kolzig said, "this is the best chemistry we've had here since 1998 when we went to the Stanley Cup finals. These guys are fun to be around and they take that to the ice. We're better than people think."

What fans think is another question. They know Caps owner Ted Leonsis has decided to build the team around youngsters such as Ovechkin, supported by veteran defenseman Brendan Witt, winger Dainius Zubrus and center Jeff Halpern, the Potomac kid who now wears the captain's "C" on his sweater and should get more notice for being a local guy who made good.

Saw a lot of happy faces on the Metro coming and going to MCI Center on Wednesday night, many in Caps sweaters with names such as Bondra and Jagr on the back. The Capitals need to do a better job of selling the guys still here -- Kolzig, Ovechkin, Zubrus, Halpern, Witt -- and work the town harder. The Nationals had the luxury of a story 34 years in the making. The Caps have no such luxury; only some attractive hockey players who need to get into the community and an owner whose reputation as a salesman will be tested this season.

"We have a hard-core fan base here," Kolzig said. "And we have Ovechkin. He wants to score and have fun."

Who doesn't?

LaVar's Turning World

What going on with LaVar? He has such star appeal you don't even need to run his last name (Arrington), position (outside linebacker) or the fact he went to the Pro Bowl three straight years (2001-03) before missing most of the 2004 season with a knee injury. And he was the face of the Redskins -- the biggest star the team has had since Riggo "bowed" out 20 years ago. When he was a bachelor, he even dated Serena. That Serena.

And now LaVar, 27, is healthy -- "the knee is fine," he says. But the defensive brain trust -- assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams and linebackers coach Dale Lindsey -- have LaVar cooling his heels on the sideline. He is now the fifth linebacker -- like some high schooler being punished for not turning in a civics paper. LaVar got in for two plays last Sunday, when I thought he could have helped stem a fourth-quarter Seattle rally that sent the game into overtime before the Redskins won, 20-17.

Okay, there's that small matter of $6.5 million that LaVar said the Redskins did not include on the sticker price on his last contract. Management maintains the extra millions were not part of LaVar's megabucks pact. That matter was finally settled last summer, but the guys certainly have not been playing nice since.

"I lost my job," LaVar told WTEM's John Thompson. "And there's been no communication."

"He fits into some packages," Coach Joe said to multimedia that must have included a reporter from the DHL newsletter.

Several sources close to the situation say LaVar has frustrated Redskins coaches since he joined the team in 2001 because he operates on his own too often, freelancing, not playing the prescribed defense and taking risks that often end in failure. Only Marvin Lewis, the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier in 2002, seemed truly pleased with Arrington's style.

A former Redskins defensive star who still follows the team closely but did not want to be identified said LaVar remains one of the best players on the squad and was stunned to see him sharing a spot on the sideline in the fourth quarter with safety Sean Taylor while Matt Hasslebeck was making like Johnny Unitas. Arrington and Taylor on the sideline during that episode? Explain that again.

Here's my take: Gibbs and Williams have a management challenge with LaVar, who may be a pain but seems worth the effort if he's trying to do his part. Aren't they all on the same team?

Touching the Bases

Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig has continued to delay the decision on which ownership group will win the bidding -- expected to reach $450 million -- for the Washington Nationals. The all-star break was Selig's first target, followed by monthly delays that have frustrated Washington baseball fans, as well as potential owners.

The latest delay centers on Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who has been representing MLB in negotiating with the D.C. Council on a lease of the $535 million stadium project. Reinsdorf told The Post's Les Carpenter he won't have time to negotiate while his team remains in the playoffs.

I would take a shot at Reinsdorf for taking this posture, except without him there would be no Washington baseball team. Reinsdorf helped convince Bud we're real people and faced down Peter the Great. So take your time, Jerry, and let me know if you want your car washed when you come to town.

Meanwhile, the ownership race remains close, with the Malek-Zients Bunch, Team Lerner and Indianapolis big-shot media mogul Jeffrey Smulyan all seen buying coffee mugs at the Nationals' team store postseason sale.

Have a comment or question? Reach me at Talkback@washpost.com.

Goalie Olie Kolzig figures to be doing a lot of scrambling in the crease this season behind inexperienced Capitals defenders. Still, "we're better than people think," Kolzig said.