Since Bryan Murray was summarily ejected by referee Andy Van Hellemond early in the second period of the Capitals' second game of the season at New Jersey, the Washington coach has been surprisingly calm.

Of course, calmness is relative for a man who once stepped out on the ice and offered to fight Hartford assistant Ricky Ley when Ley said, "You're tough behind the bench" -- and a man who last season was fined $1,000 by NHL President John Ziegler for twice badgering officials to the point where he received postgame gross misconduct penalties.

Saturday, the heralded Murray temper was evident once again, as he shouted some words in the heat of battle at Philadelphia Coach Mike Keenan, a nemesis since the two coached junior teams in the 1980 Memorial Cup final at Regina, Saskatchewan.

In this case, Murray was objecting to the tactics of the Flyers, who repeatedly ran at Washington players after goals or stoppages of play in apparent attempts to lure Capitals players into the penalty box.

Afterward, rumors raced as far west as Edmonton that Murray had challenged Keenan to a fight, but Murray denied them.

"I told him he was real brave standing behind the bench and sending guys out to jump goal scorers," Murray said. "And I said he sure had changed his attitude about cheap shots and questionable tactics since he's coaching the Philadelphia Flyers. He's a guy who, when he coached juniors, frowned on fighting and any physical stuff."

Murray never has frowned on fighting or physical stuff. He simply hates to see it used as game strategy to take advantage of the NHL's apparent policy of keeping penalty calls as even as possible.

"I don't mind fighting and I like toughness, but I don't like the Flyers' game plan," Murray said. "If you score a goal, it's like gang warfare, with designated hit men out there trying to drag skill players of the other team into the penalty box."

Murray claims his words toward Keenan were an aberration, brought on by disgust for what he was watching.

"I never yell at other coaches," Murray said. "I get along with most of the other coaches in the league very well, with a couple of exceptions. Sure, Mike Keenan and Glen Sather (of Edmonton) are the exceptions. But maybe it's because there's a real rivalry there. Maybe that's what happens when you're competing for something big."

Although Murray spoke at length with referee Bryan Lewis after Saturday's game, he says he is much more restrained in his protests toward NHL officials. In a way, he sympathizes with them.

"I've made a real definite effort to be calmer and more collected behind the bench this season," Murray said. "I was on the refs before when I felt very strongly about calls and when I felt strongly about some situations, but I realize there's no point in yelling.

"I understand more clearly now the philosophy of the NHL. The referees are caught in a bind. They want to give both teams a chance to win and they don't want to throw good players out of a hockey game, so they tend to overlook a lot of things. In part, that seems to be because the league wants them to overlook a lot of things and keep the penalties even.

"But even though I've tried very hard not to force the referee to point a finger at me, there are occasions when you have to be emotional. That's part of my job, to motivate through discipline in the room and through reaction on the bench."

During his four-plus seasons in the NHL, Murray has learned far more than the futility of harassing officials. He considers himself a better coach now than when he almost unanimously was selected as the league's best two years ago.

"I have more information, I know the players around the league better and I know how to use my own players better," Murray said. "I know the styles of other coaches and what they're trying to do and I understand the overall game better. I've learned what is likely to work in this league, as far as individual plays and systems."

Among Murray's more remarkable achievements this season have been the successful moves of Alan Haworth and Bengt Gustafsson to center and Dave Christian to right wing. He also has persuaded defenseman Scott Stevens to restrain himself and stay in the game, instead of being suckered into fights.

Murray has been called a tough disciplinarian and the Capitals are considered one of the more disciplined teams in the NHL, which may seem a bit strange for a guy so quick to fly off the handle. But team captain Rod Langway, who even more than Stevens has faithfully followed Murray's order to avoid combat, does not feel the coach's diatribes behind the bench diminish his effectiveness.

"It's not at the point where Bryan can't control himself," Langway said. "He's so into the game behind our bench, he has to express himself verbally. We can hit guys on the ice, but that's the only way for him to relieve his pressure. He'd go nuts otherwise.

"Bryan is a good coach and if he wasn't involved in the game like that, he'd be sick. A lot of guys have grown with him here. He's the key in our being disciplined. If we get told what to do, we do it.

"Sometimes, like that game Saturday, it's tough to do, but you have to obey orders. Bryan has been a good coach from junior up and I have no complaints about him. Like any other person, you get ticked off at him once in a while, but you have to live together for eight months and the way things are here, it's pretty hard not to be liked."

Perhaps Murray's definition of discipline tells much of the reason for the Capitals' togetherness, the foundation of their success.

"Discipline is respect for each other and for what the coaches are trying to do," Murray said. "It's playing within a line or a group or a system.

"Working hard reflects on a team that has some feeling for each other and for the importance of winning. There has to be respect in the room as well as on the ice, helping each other, cheering for each other and making demands on each other."

Murray, by welcoming input from the players through personal meetings and 20-game reports, has created a situation of which Langway said, "This is a good group. We accept each other, from management right down. There are no stars here. Everyone is on the same basis, even rookies. Some teams shave rookies and won't allow them to talk to veterans, but here they can say what they want. Of course, we don't pay any attention to them, but they can say it."

"We use information the players give us for motivational ideas, in the treatment of the players and sometimes even individual things on the ice," Murray said. "We want the players to feel they can communicate and it's on open ears.

"We've changed a few things. For example, my first couple of years here there was never a day off. This season, the guys were given a three-day Christmas break. In the short run, it probably hurt, but in the long term I think it will benefit us.

"It wasn't because I'm getting softer. I think I'm getting smarter. I used to consider every defeat like the end of the world, but it's an 80-game season and we want to be a good playoff team -- a very good playoff team."