Sometimes Larry Murphy drives the Washington Capitals and their fans to distraction. His occasionally inexplicable moves have prompted mild-mannered Terry Murray, the assistant coach, to curse into his press box-to-bench walkie-talkie.

And they induced a loyal supporter of the hockey club to walk around the Capital Centre concourse wearing a paper bag inscribed: "President, Larry Murphy Fan Club."

Through Murphy's struggles, however, Coach Bryan Murray each night has penciled his name into the lineup. His reasoning is clear: "If there's a talented guy and he's struggling, he gets a chance to stay in there more than somebody else. The high point on a good player is what you're looking for."

Nobody has doubted Murphy's talent since he was selected as the Ontario Junior League's outstanding defenseman in 1980 with Peterborough. The Los Angeles Kings drafted him in the first round and expected great things, but after three seasons in which they doubted his defensive instincts, the Kings dealt him to Washington for Brian Engblom and Ken Houston.

For more than a year now, the Murray brothers more or less patiently have brought Murphy along, to the point where he at last appears to be ready to attain what Bryan Murray terms "the high point on a good player."

When the Capitals face the Detroit Red Wings today at 1:30, Murphy will be concluding his brightest home stand as a Capital. He scored two goals against Pittsburgh Sunday and was chosen No. 1 star. Then he set up two goals against New Jersey Tuesday and again earned star status.

Friday against Winnipeg, with the Capitals trailing, 5-4, and less than five minutes remaining, Murphy pounced on a blocked shot in the slot and tied the game with a well-placed backhander. It is perhaps typical of Murray's Capitals career that he was deprived of a hero's acclaim when Winnipeg pulled out a 7-5 decision.

Even more notable than his offensive efforts has been his improved defensive play. In Los Angeles, Murphy was strictly a benchwarmer during penalty-killing situations and the late minutes of close games. Here, Murray has no hesitation putting him out in those circumstances.

"He's played with a lot more authority and confidence," Murray said. "When he gets the puck, he's demanding things of himself. He's making things happen offensively and I'm not at all disappointed with his defensive play.

"He's shooting the puck with a real jump to it, where he was tentative at the blueline before. If he had a problem early on, it was lack of confidence. The fans here have not shown much regard for his play and he's put pressure on himself. He's in his best condition ever, but for a long time he wasn't as sharp mentally as he had to be."

Murphy, 23, admits that he has been pressing at home, trying to satisfy a crowd of boobirds that through the years has focused on Capitals defensemen -- Robert Picard, Rick Green and Gord Lane, to name a few who have moved on to prosper elsewhere.

"Half the game is confidence and, lacking it, your play is affected," Murphy said. "My play at home hasn't been up to par and until this week I've played better on the road. No question, people have been putting pressure on me.

"I hope the stars will ease it, at least for a while. It would be nice not to hear the catcalls. With the whole team playing well, it gives everybody confidence. But if the team goes sour, I'm sure people will be upset again and they'll be all over anybody who makes a mistake. It's human nature."

Murphy trimmed his weight from 215 to 205 during the summer and reported in excellent condition. Big things were expected of him, but the way the season started, he seemed more attuned to Binghamton than stardom.

Compounding matters was the fact that he overslept in Chicago after the third game of the season, missing the plane to Washington and the practice that followed. He was slapped with a heavy fine and teammates kidded him unmercifully at a Touchdown Club luncheon a few days later.

"Everybody's slept in once," Murphy said. "You have to forget it or it will affect you on the ice. I tried to pick things up at the next practice and put it behind me.

"It was good to have the coach show confidence in me when things weren't going well. He knew I was working hard . . .

"Lately, I've been killing penalties and that's something every defenseman likes to do. Our penalty killing was giving up a lot of goals, but now the guys have started to go back to last year and I'm glad I'm part of it. When you don't kill penalties, people tend to say you can't play defense."

Murray would like Murphy to use his weight more against opposing forwards, but for the moment he is satisfied with the higher level of play Murphy has displayed.

"He worked hard in the offseason and he puts in a lot of extra time after practice," Murray said. "I'm expecting big things from him. I know he can do it and I think maybe now he knows it, too."