Most hockey coaches restrain their optimism, to ensure that they don't transfer their enthusiasm to the team's owner and risk unemployment when things do not work out as expected. So it was a shock yesterday to hear Washington's Bryan Murray mentioning Stanley Cup rings on the eve of the club's season opener in New York against the Rangers.

To be sure, Murray wasn't promising a Cup triumph in May. But he did allude to the possibility for the Capitals, a team that has not won a divisional title.

"The Washington Capitals will be a competitive, entertaining and interesting hockey club," Murray said. "When the playoffs come around, I'm confident we'll overcome our hurdle this time, and when we meet next year maybe we'll have the rings on our fingers."

The "hurdle" is the New York Islanders, who have eliminated Washington from the playoffs three years in a row. With the aim of fighting the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs, the Capitals this season have emphasized size and aggressiveness rather than skating and shooting skills.

"The thing I like about this year's hockey team is its size and strength," Murray said. "Last year, we started smaller, skilled players, and while you can't overlook skill, the other dimension in this division is very important. People we've added like Kevin Hatcher, Dwight Schofield, Lou Franceschetti and Ed Kastelic will definitely play very important roles as the season develops."

Hatcher, 19, figures to play a key role right from tonight's 7:35 opening faceoff in Madison Square Garden. He will be paired on defense with Scott Stevens, 21, and Murray expects youthful mistakes in the early going.

"We want Scott to be patient with a young partner," Murray said. "Both are big, strong kids and I think it's a pretty sound pairing. Young people will make mistakes early and you either quit on them or give them a chance. It would be easy to make Kevin Hatcher the sixth defenseman and hold him out, but that's not the route I want to go."

The other defense pairings have captain Rod Langway with Larry Murphy, and Peter Andersson with Darren Veitch. Timo Blomqvist agreed yesterday to play in Binghamton.

Schofield, who joined the team yesterday, is unlikely to play tonight and Kastelic will not dress for at least two weeks because of a fractured cheekbone. Franceschetti starts out as the right wing on the fourth line, with Gary Sampson and Doug Jarvis.

A major change this year has wingers Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould, who previously played on a checking line with first Glen Currie and then Jarvis, skating alongside Dave Christian. The idea is for the line routinely matched against the opposition's best to produce a higher number of goals, since it receives an inordinate amount of ice time.

"I hope they're more than a checking line, although on a lot of occasions they'll match up against the better scoring lines," Murray said. "I hope to upgrade Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould, and make them (the opposition) worry about us in addition to us worrying about them. We'll be giving responsible guys more of a dimension and more chances to score."

Greg Adams will be the left wing on the No. 1 line with Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner. Murray said, "When we started camp, we had other people figured in, but Greg had a good camp and a good preseason."

The other line has Bengt Gustafsson centering for Alan Haworth and Craig Laughlin. More is expected of all three than last year's respective goal totals of 14, 23 and 16.

For the fourth straight season, Pat Riggin will be the opening-night starter in goal.

The Capitals are coming off a 2-5-1 exhibition season, worst in the team's 12-year history, but they cite that as a reason to expect a fast regular-season start for the first time.

After excellent preseason marks the last three years under Murray, the Capitals have stumbled out of the gate. Last year they were 2-3-2 after seven games and 6-8-5 on Nov. 23.

This year, seven of the first nine games are on the road. Murray points to the Capitals' 19-14-7 road mark of last season as evidence they can overcome that difficulty, in this case self-created by a desire to avoid conflicts with TV baseball that traditionally have produced low home attendance.

"We'll have a fair start," Murray said. "We've taken a different approach in camp and we haven't been concerned with our record.

"I think last year's great preseason may have worked against us. We had played our regulars a little more than the clubs we were playing and we were a little smug coming in. This year everybody had a few games off and we've emphasized practices more than games. It should pay off."