Bryan Erickson, a right-hand shot, will make his seasonal debut as a left wing tonight when the Washington Capitals entertain the New York Rangers at 7:30.

Although the shift from his usual right-side spot creates a few problems, notably accepting passes from his linemates, Erickson is grateful to be on the ice -- in any capacity.

After enhancing his stature with a strong performance for Team USA in the Canada Cup, Erickson posted an exhibition hat trick against the Calgary Flames and seemed headed for an excellent season. Then he suffered a broken right thumb in an exhibition in Hartford.

"It's always tough to sit out, but coming at the start of the year, when you want to get off to a good start, makes it that much worse," Erickson said. "It wasn't easy to watch the first four games."

Making an impression as a hockey player never has been easy for Erickson. Scouts at all levels have checked his size -- 5 feet 9, 170 pounds -- and commented: "Too small."

Nevertheless, Erickson became a high school star in Roseau, Minn., playing alongside the Broten brothers, Aaron and Neal. He enrolled at Cornell, didn't like it and went back home to become a walk-on at the University of Minnesota.

Although scoring 238 points in 109 games, Erickson was not drafted by any National Hockey League club. Upon graduation in 1983, he was coveted by the U.S. Olympic team but, instead, decided that if he was to become a pro, he had to make the move immediately. That was a principal reason he signed with Washington instead of Minnesota, which also offered him a free-agent contract.

"The North Stars wanted a clause that if I couldn't make the team, I'd play for the Olympic team," Erickson said. "I felt it was just a way for them to have me when the Olympic year was over.

"The Caps were more what I was looking for, because I'd be part of the organization right away, even in the minors, and not be on hold to the Olympic team. Besides, where Minnesota offered me two years, Washington gave me three, and it wasn't a bad contract."

Reporting to Hershey in April 1983, Erickson played briefly in the closing game of the regular season. Then, after sitting out the first playoff contest, he got his chance in the second and recorded a hat trick.

Erickson was given two brief early season looks in Washington a year ago, but he toiled principally in Hershey until Jan. 8, when he was recalled because of Gary McAdam's inability to score.

Erickson responded with 12 goals in 37 games. Still, he hardly seemed like a red-hot candidate to play in the Canada Cup. But Lou Nanne, general manager of both Team USA and the North Stars, knew his man.

"I knew he'd work well on a line with the Brotens," Nanne said. "Remember, I tried to sign him. I knew he could play."

Erickson shocked a lot of other folks, however, and even surprised himself a bit.

"I was hoping I'd get a chance to try out and maybe get some ice time," Erickson said. "Once I got there, it really went well. Making the team was icing on the cake and I think I had a good tournament, which made it just great.

"Then the Capitals' camp was so different from last year. I felt good and I felt ready. Last year, I had a lot of doubts whether I could play and I was always worrying that if I made one mistake, I'd get sent to the minors."

Now that his thumb is healed, Erickson is anxious to make up for lost time. The position is immaterial.

"I played the left side on the power play in college and I played there about 15 games last year," Erickson, whose linemates tonight will be Dave Christian and Alan Haworth, said. "It's not that big an adjustment. Right now, I just want to play."

The statement is similar to Erickson's feelings about his size: "It's a motivating thing for me. I feel if you prove you can play, they've got to play you, no matter how big you are."