When you're starting your first full season as head coach and you're coming off an off-season filled with controversy and free-agent defections and holdouts, you're probably looking for every edge you can get for opening night.
Not, evidently, if you're Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray.
Murray and the Capitals will begin their 1990-91 season at the Capital Centre tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will be without Mario Lemieux, out for three months with back pain. And, believe it or not, Murray isn't happy that the man who scored 123 points in only 59 games last season won't be in the lineup.
"Real honestly, I feel really bad for Mario," Murray said yesterday. "We're the ones who are going to lose -- the fans, the media, the opposing team. He's a fun player to watch, one of the stars of the NHL.
"I've seen where we talk about 'Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins' coming to town. That's the business part of it."
The fun part of it began for Murray last month at training camp inLake Placid, N.Y., when he and the Capitals began the on-ice process of putting the ugly off-season behind them.
Murray said he thinks the fans are ready to forgive the incident in which four Capitals players were implicated in an alleged sexual assault against a 17-year-old girl in a limousine outside a Georgetown bar.
Although charges were not filed, two of the four -- defenseman Scott Stevens and left wing Geoff Courtnall -- no longer are with the team. Stevens left for the St. Louis Blues via free agency, and Courtnall, the Capitals' second-leading scorer last season, joined him there after being asked to be traded to avoid an uncomfortable situation in Washington.
Right wing Dino Ciccarelli, the Capitals' leading scorer last year, has spent the past several months apologizing publicly, and the other player, defenseman Neil Sheehy, still is on the roster but out for three-four months with a fractured ankle.
One other item that Murray hopes is behind the Capitals is Kevin Hatcher's holdout. Hatcher sat out all of training camp, looking to renegotiate his contract, which has three years remaining. Hatcher returned Tuesday -- without a new contract -- and it's possible he might leave again before tonight's game. Hatcher's agent, Ron Salcer, met with Capitals president Dick Patrick and owner Abe Pollin yesterday to try to work out a new deal.
"Whenever I sit and write down defensive pairings, Kevin is in there," Murray said. "And he will be until I'm told differently. If he's out, then he's out and we'll have to go from there."
If Hatcher is out, more of a burden will fall on newcomers Mike Lalor (acquired from St. Louis with center Peter Zezel in the Courtnall trade) and Joel Quenneville (acquired Wednesday from the Hartford Whalers for future considerations).