Last year's horrendous 1-11 beginning is only a bad memory now. The Washington Capitals open their ninth season tonight against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden (WDCA-TV-20, 7:30 p.m.), leading the National Hockey League in hope and determination, if nothing else.

Enough offseason changes took place within the Capitals to produce a remodeled version of the team last seen failing to make the NHL playoffs. "We're all feeling very positive," is how Coach Bryan Murray describes the situation. Indeed, hang around the Capitals for a day--or an hour--and the one word that pops up constantly is "positive."

Perhaps with good reason. In addition to new money and a new general manager, the Capitals added new talent, heavy talent on defense, with former Montreal all-stars Brian Engblom and Rod Langway, and defensive center Doug Jarvis.

The trade that brought in those three, as well as left wing Craig Laughlin, sent former captain Ryan Walter and Rick Green to Montreal. Langway will wear the captain's "C" this year.

All told, there are 11 new names in the lineup, and the primary concern of General Manager Dave Poile is that "the guys adjust to one another" relatively fast. They need to get used to playing together."

If the preseason record is any indication, the adjustment is fairly complete. The Capitals finished the exhibitions 5-2-1, including a 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday. Murray was pleased with that performance, citing Langway's defensive strength and the increasingly consistent goaltending of Pat Riggin.

Against the Rangers, Murray says his team will have to "take chances deep in their (the Rangers') zone, but be very concerned when they take control. When they've got the puck, they're a dangerous team."

Murray, who watched New York tie Philadelphia in Atlantic City Sunday night, was impressed with the Rangers' mobility. Coach Herb Brooks' system is based upon his team's possession of the puck, rather than dumping and chasing it into the offensive zone. His forwards also weave in and out of zones instead of skating within their own lanes.

"No question, they're a very mobile club, aggressive and with more poise (than last year)," he said. "I haven't honestly looked at trying to match our lines to theirs. I have some idea, but I won't demand certain lineups."

Murray indicated he probably would put last season's 60-goal scorer Dennis Maruk between Bengt Gustafsson and Alan Haworth, at least for tonight's game, but he still is testing and juggling other line combinations.

Of Haworth, acquired from Buffalo in the offseason, Murray said, "He's been a little up-tight in games, but I can see some good things happening with him." Haworth lost nearly 10 days of training camp with an ankle injury.

Washington's "checking line," centered by Jarvis with Ken Houston and Bob Gould on the wings, is almost sure to stay intact. "It's been our most productive line," Murray said.

One Ranger line worth noting is the combination of Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and former Detroit Red Wing Vaclav Nedomansky. Both Swedes are back from major knee surgery, after being injured in last fall's Canada Cup. Although Hedberg played four games last season and Nilsson none, both could become offensive factors if only they can stay healthy for any length of time.

Goalie John Davidson also is back from the injured ward, but Ed Mio will start in tonight's game. The Rangers' third goalie is Steve Weeks.

For Washington, Riggin is No. 1, for the moment, while Dave Parro recovers from a shoulder injured in practice several weeks ago. Robbie Moore, called up from Hershey, will serve as Riggin's backup until Parro is healthy enough to play.

Last season, the Rangers and Capitals were well-matched opponents. "In New York, we beat them twice, tied them twice, and in Washington, we lost two and tied two," Murray said. "In every game, it was very close, entertaining hockey."

Both teams tend to rely on skating and defense. In the Capitals past, defense was lacking, but the presence of Langway, teamed with Darren Veitch, and Engblom, skating with rookie Scott Stevens, moves Washington far up on the credibility scale.

New York's preseason record was 4-1-3 . . . The Rangers acquired St. Louis defenseman Bill Baker in Monday's waiver draft. Now Brooks is coaching three of his former Olympic charges: Baker, Matt Pavelich and Rob McClanahan. In addition, Dave Silk, on loan to Binghamton of the American Hockey League, is Ranger property . . . The Capitals trimmed their roster to 21, sending defenseman Timo Blomqvist and center Glen Currie to Hershey . . . Maruk and Mike Gartner were selected alternate captains.