Mike Palmateer's goal is not to become the best goaltender in hockey. He figures he already is. Palmateer's goal is to score one goal himself and his return to Capital Centre yesterday reminded him of a lost opportunity for same.

"I'm still trying to score my first goal and I thought I'd get in here," Palmateer said after signing a four-year contract with the Washington Capitals. "Lanny McDonald was skating at the empty net and I was waiting for him to drop the puck to me at the blue line. But he was going for a hat trick, so I never saw it."

That Palmateer would be that far away from his net in such a crucial spot comes as no surprise to those who saw him operate with the Toronto Maple Leafs -- or to those who wondered about a forward named Palmateer playing junior B hockey, at the same time goalie Palmateer was a star in junior A. They were the same man.

"I used to be a forward," Palmateer said. "Halfway through the season when I was 8 and we had only one goaltender, the coach bought a second set of equipment so we could scrimmage and have more fun. I played goalie in practice, then the coach played me a couple of games, the other goalie got mad and quit, and I finished the season. I still played forward until I was 17 in Junior B.

"I go out of the net a lot and I cover more area than most goaltenders, because I think if the goaltender goes out and works with the defense, helps them move the puck, it's a big plus. If I improved anything last year, it was my puck-handling ability. You have to be able to handle the puck and you have to have confidence in yourself when you get way out there by yourself."

The 5-foot-9 redhead has never lacked confidence. He has been called cocky, and brash, and just plain crazy after he said, following a 10-0 loss at Boston, "I played great tonight."

"I meant it," Palmateer insisted. "Every Boston shot was a breakaway and I was standing on my ear. I could have let in 25 that game."

The Capitals do not expect Palmateer to allow 25 in a month. He received celebrity treatment yesterday -- his father, John, accompanied him to a prime rib luncheon at the Captial Club and accoutrements included a goalie cage and huge bags of popcorn, Palamateer's favorite pregame nourishment.

"We've been after this young man for a long time," said owner Abe Pollin. "We have filled in the last missing link for the kind of team we want to represent the Washington Capitals."

The affair started a half hour late, while the 26-year-old Palmateer studied various Captials addenda to the standard player contract before signing. Then there was brief wonder that the guest of honor might be an imposter, since he admitted to being nervous and requested one-on-one interviews rather than the usual battery of microphones and kleig lights.

"You can see I'm nervous up here," Palamateer said. "I'm only good in front of people if I've got my equipment on."

Then Palmateer promised to display a little humility when the season began, as well.

"I put pressure on myself last year, yapping away about a lot of thing," Palmateer said. "I wanted to play under pressure. But it was pretty hard. If I had it to do over, I'd do it differently.

"This year I'll be a little less cocky. Being a professional, you shouldn't let all the sideshows affect you, but they do. And whether I was playing well or not, I was still getting bombed, and that gets to you."

The Capitals are scheduled to visit Sweden for a tournament in September and Palmateer will be given a preview this week. He leaves for Sweden Wednesday to participate in the European Superstars.

Asked what that competition consisted of, Palmateer said, "I have no idea." His attorney Marvin Goldblatt, interrupted and said, "Money."

Palmeteer's signature yesterday guaranteed that he will received plenty of Pollin's money, about $800,000 over the next four years. He also was handed his old jersey No. 29, as Pierre Bouchard agreed to revert to the No. 26 he wore in Montreal. And Pollin gave Palmateer a bucket of popcorn.

In four months, Palmateer will be expected to return the favors.