Even when the Washington Capitals were winning the Southeast Division, as they did in 2000 and 2001, or making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, you could never mistake this town for hockey-crazed Montreal or Detroit. Still, the team, born in 1974 and nurtured at the Capital Centre in Landover until moving downtown to MCI Center eight years ago, has mostly been competitive and often endearing, with a solid fan base.

Which brings us to Friday night at MCI -- with the Atlanta Thrashers in town to play the Capitals, the night after Washington was routed in Philadelphia, 8-1, with backup Brent Johnson in goal. The crowd was late arriving, but by the second period, when Bryan Muir and Jakub Klepis scored for a 2-1 Capitals lead, most of the 13,758 had their hearts in it. In the end, star rookie Alex Ovechkin's goal in the shootout and Olie Kolzig stopping Peter Bondra sent the fans home happy after a 3-2 win.

The Caps (5-8) have been led by Ovechkin and Kolzig, supported well by Jeff Halpern, Brendan Witt and currently injured Dainius Zubrus, with Coach Glen Hanlon showing patience. The team's play, for the most part, has been mostly respectable.

Washington's two main problems -- more than eight months after the NHL became the only sports league to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute -- are putting together a major league defense and getting fans to care. So far, getting fans (and media) interested has been as difficult for the Caps as keeping the puck out of the net.

How difficult? The Caps are last in attendance in the 30-team league, averaging 12,313 fans through the first six home games, down about 2,400 fans per game from their previous season (2003-04). Meanwhile, much of the rest of the NHL is doing better than expected, setting an attendance record for October with buildings filled to 91.2 percent capacity, according to the league.

"We always had confidence in the game and our fans," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on Thursday. "We made the product better with revised rules, a partnership with the players and the right economic system," namely a salary cap of about $39 million.

But in Washington, the formula has not worked so far. In the last season before the lockout, Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis scuttled the team and cut his payroll (from about $52 million to $25 million). He unloaded name players such as Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Robert Lang and Steve Konowalchuk. Jagr seems reborn with the Rangers, delighting in making fun of Washington's half-filled arena.

I believe Leonsis made a major mistake by getting rid of so many big names and fan favorites at once, slashing salaries and rebuilding the team with high draft picks obtained by trading his stars. From a high of about 12,000 season ticket holders the summer Jagr was obtained in 2001, the Caps' season ticket base is now about 7,500.

In a missive on the team's Web site, Leonsis, whose sports group also owns 44 percent of the Wizards and MCI Center and 100 percent of the WNBA's Mystics, writes: "Our attendance is down and we expected it. The lockout, our strategy to reconstruct the makeup of our team and the arrival of the Nationals baseball club have contributed to our reduced attendance. A major reason (for the attendance decline) is many plan-holders did not renew their plans. . . . We have to work to rebuild that trust and rekindle that relationship."

Leonsis continued that the team's efforts over the past 20 years to tweak and retool the roster in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup "failed" -- leading to the current rebuilding effort with "prospects and young players" acquired in trades. "We have been honest and open about this plan and will improve year after year until we get to our collective goal."

While a number of fans have rejected Leonsis's strategy, Bettman believes Leonsis is on the right track. "Ted is passionate and committed," Bettman said. "He has the right pieces in place to make this work."

If Leonsis is committed to his hockey team -- with hopes of one day adding the Wizards and MCI to his portfolio -- a more aggressive posture for the Caps is in order now. The team needs to add experienced defensemen right away, and solidify the club's player development and scouting. Also, I would suggest that a number of casual sports fans -- not hockey die-hards -- have no idea what Leonsis is trying to accomplish and look only at the results. And let's quit blaming the Nationals, who actually play most of their games after the ice melts.

Nats Notes

If hockey fans question Leonsis's strategy, at least they have an owner to question. The agonizing process Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and Major League Baseball are going through to select a buyer for the Nationals drags on and on and on. Several of the groups recently met with Selig, while White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf took time from celebrating his World Series triumph to meet with D.C. officials in hopes of finalizing the lease for the new stadium.

Meanwhile, team president Tony Tavares and GM Jim Bowden try to conduct business. On Thursday, Bowden traded 38-year-old third baseman Vinny Castilla to San Diego for pitcher Brian Lawrence. Vinny was a fan favorite in the spring until injuries slowed him. He likely will be replaced by phenom Ryan Zimmerman, with Brendan Harris -- another youngster with potential -- also slated to get a look. Of course, we wonder who will do the looking, since we don't know the status of Frank Robinson or his coaches. I, for one, will miss Vinny.

Why is this sale process so complicated? You have several solid local groups and several solid out-of-town bidders. I would sell the team to one of the local groups and offer to sell the out-of-towners season tickets to the Nationals and Capitals.

Friendly Suggestions

When the Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles tonight at FedEx Field, I suggest:

* LaVar start and play the entire game on offense, defense and special teams.

* Clinton Portis lose the Terrell Owens costume he was going to wear tonight and go back to Jerome from Southeast.

* Tiki Barber is nowhere to be found.

* The national anthem be sung by a chorale of 2,000 shareholders of Six Flags Inc., the chain of theme parks Redskins owner Daniel Snyder wants to control.

* The Redskins' defense actually tackle Donovan McNabb for the first time in five years.

* The Redskins' defense try to stop Brian Westbrook, or any Eagles back, from running longer than 50 yards on a single carry -- which would be a switch from the previous four weeks.

Have a comment or question? Reach me at talkback@washpost.com. Interested in your thoughts on Ted Leonsis's strategy for rebuilding the Capitals.

"We have to work to rebuild that trust and rekindle that relationship" with the fans, writes Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. His cost-cutting ways have not helped matters.