The Washington Capitals are hard to handle from November to March. In October and April, however, they find ways to lose that Hollywood scriptwriters scarcely could imagine.

When the Capitals' 14th training camp officially starts today at Mount Vernon, there will be a number of changes, designed to alter the results in October, at least, and get the club off in the right direction toward its long-range goal -- to play in May.

During Coach Bryan Murray's first five training camps, it was the practice to scrimmage right from the start, sometimes twice a day. Players were assigned to teams of fairly even ability and the proceedings were very competitive.

This season, the early scrimmage procedure has been scrapped. Instead, a core of 23 or so who have a good shot at making the Capitals will be put together for intensive twice-a-day drills. The remainder of the squad will work out earlier and it will take some eye-catching work to earn promotion, rather than assignment to Binghamton or Fort Wayne.

Most of the players with remaining junior eligibility who participated in the scrimmages in years past were gone before the veterans arrived this time. They were here for drills and testing, but left this week when players destined for minor league assignment began processing.

"In the past, we were interested in obtaining information on our young players, and scrimmages were a good way to accomplish that," Murray said. "But they were not the ultimate tool in conditioning.

"Looking at past starts, we decided that this season camp would be designed to get the Capitals ready for the season, rather than an opportunity for people to make our team.

"We are taking the 23 or 24 guys with a legitimate shot to play and we will concentrate on conditioning, getting the systems installed quicker, goaltending and the power play, where we have to get better.

"The scouts, coaching staff and management will be looking at and evaluating our top guys more in a separate situation than in the past. After a few days, there will be an opportunity to move up or down."

The Capitals never have started quickly. They were 1-14 in 1981, a disaster that brought Murray to Washington. Despite his repeated winning seasons, Murray has suffered through beginnings that read 3-7-2, 0-7-0, 6-8-5, 2-4-2 and 7-13-5. It was not until March 3 that the Capitals topped .500 last season.

Pete Peeters, the veteran goalie whose slow start matched that of the team, said he did not receive enough work in training camp, in large part because of the constant scrimmaging, and Murray heeded the complaint.

"Before, with scrimmages only, the goaltenders didn't get enough work," Murray said. "This year, we want them to get off on the right foot, so we'll have a lot of shooting and intensive drills for the goaltenders, including extra sessions with Warren {Strelow, the goaltender coach}."

In yet another change, Strelow will be assigned additional duties to compensate for the departure of assistant Ron Lapointe, who became the head coach at Fredericton (New Brunswick) of the American Hockey League. Murray chose not to replace Lapointe and indicated he will handle the bench duties by himself this season, with an extra player manning the walkie-talkie to assistant Terry Murray in the press box.

Lapointe joined Bryan Murray behind the bench part of last season, before he swapped places with Terry Murray.

"Generally, I'll handle the bench," Bryan Murray said. "It's a setup that worked pretty well two or three years ago. Warren will be around a little more and I don't think having one less coach will be a shortcoming.

"Ron was close to the players and just because he's gone does not mean we won't be listening to them. We want a lot of conversations with the players. We want to listen to their thoughts and we intend to express our feelings toward them."

The return of center Bengt Gustafsson and the addition of center Dale Hunter, goalie Clint Malarchuk and winger Peter Sundstrom have raised hopes of a banner season, but, regardless of the getaway in October, it will not be until May that this campaign will be evaluated.

Despite five highly successful seasons in which they ranked among the elite of the NHL, the Capitals never have survived the Patrick Division playoffs, and thus never have played in May, when the games are most meaningful.

"We've talked about where the team fits in the NHL," Murray said. "In the regular season, we're usually right there, but obviously we haven't been there in the playoffs, for one reason or another. We intend to change that and we're going to start by getting off on the right foot for a change."

The Capitals will play only seven exhibitions, beginning with a Sept. 18 visit to Buffalo. Home games are scheduled against Boston Sept. 19 and the U.S. Olympic team Sept. 25. The rookie scrimmages have been reduced to two, both against New Jersey. The regular season will begin Oct. 8 in Boston, with the first home game Oct. 10 against Chicago.