Ever since Minnesota General Manager Lou Nanne traded Dennis Maruk to Washington in 1978, the editors at the Minneapolis Tribune have bedeviled Nanne by inserting "former North Star" whenever Maruk's name appears in a story involving the Capitals.

Because Maruk scored 60 goals last year and 50 the season before, he has been cited frequently enough to cause Nanne to lose his taste for the morning paper, not to mention his breakfast.

Thursday night, Maruk will have a chance to apply some in-person jabs to the man he accused of reneging on some promises in the few weeks Maruk spent as a North Star after that club merged with Cleveland. The occasion is a matchup of the NHL's hottest teams--Washington is unbeaten in 10 games, Minnesota in eight.

After a floundering start, Maruk has resumed his usual role as the Capitals' leading scorer. With three goals and two assists in the last two games, he has amassed 15 goals and 21 assists this season.

There are several reasons why Maruk has not kept pace with last year's production. One, certainly, was the trade that sent linemate Ryan Walter to Montreal. Another was Coach Bryan Murray's decision to shift Maruk to left wing in early November.

A center throughout his hockey career, Maruk accepted the shift, scored two goals in his first assignment in St. Louis and has tried to adapt to the new position with a minimum of complaint. Still, everyone, including Murray, is aware Maruk would rather be a center, and the coach has taken advantage of the situation on occasion.

Tuesday night, for example, with the Capitals and Los Angeles deadlocked at 2 in the second period, Murray inserted Maruk at center between Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner. The line accounted for two goals as Washington blew the Kings away, 7-2, but Maruk was back at left wing before the period ended.

"I decided we needed a goal or two to get things going," Murray said. "Dennis is dying to get back at center and I kind of tease him to get him going out there. You can't do it too often, but I try to spot him and wait the chance to stir things up. He'll be at center off and on when the situation warrants it."

But Murray added that Thursday's game likely will provide more frequent opportunities to put Maruk at his favorite spot. For one thing, Minnesota is as swift a team as Washington will face; for another, center Milan Novy has a tender right elbow that could reduce his ice time.

"I can't play Dennis at center all the time, because we're short a left wing and he's shown he can play it better than our other centers," Murray said. "I want to continue to use four lines, because I think it gives us a bit of an edge late in the game. But I would think against a good skating team like Minnesota, I would move Dennis in the middle more often."

That's fine with Maruk, who thinks he makes more of a contribution buzzing around the ice than skating up and down a wing.

"I find it at times difficult playing the wing, because I never played it before in my life," Maruk said. "I don't feel I'm going to be as productive.

"I guess my big mistake was having a good game my first time on the wing in St. Louis. We're winning and that's the important thing. With the team going so well, I guess I'll stay there a while. I don't really mind it, because I'm a mucker-type player and I don't mind hitting or being hit."

In his first nine games this season, as a center, Maruk scored only three goals and amassed a minus-12 rating. It was obvious he missed Walter, and the third member of last year's No. 1 line, Chris Valentine, found Walter's absence even more crucial, as he was assigned to Hershey after a poor start.

"We played well as a line last year and we worked well together," Maruk said. "Sure, we miss Ryan. He's an outstanding player and any team would miss him. Actually, right now I'm doing Ryan's job.

"I think back to the role he filled--up and down, with a bit of mucking--and I try to do the same thing."

Maruk's sacrifice is not unappreciated by his teammates.

"Nobody is giving Dennis any credit, but he deserves a lot," said Rod Langway, the Capitals' captain. "Everybody used to call him a floater. When he got 60 goals last year, some people said it was because he was always hanging at the red line waiting for a pass.

"Well, now he's a left wing instead of a center, and he hasn't complained. Since he's been on left wing, we're playing a lot better.