General Manager David Poile made it clear yesterday that the Washington Capitals' immediate goal is to finish first in the Patrick Division.

Those words, echoed by Coach Bryan Murray and team captain Rod Langway at the team's media day gathering in Greenbelt, were the most significant development on a day when defenseman Kevin Hatcher underwent arthroscopic surgery for torn cartilage in his left knee, defenseman Tony Kellin was assigned to Binghamton and right wing Mike Gartner became the second recipient of the Dan McCoubrey Good Guy Award.

"I'm very optimistic," Poile said. "The management and coaches believe in this team and the players believe in this team. We have a strong hockey club and we are not content to finish second in the Patrick Division. We know our goal. Now we have to go and do it -- period."

Murray, clearly on the spot to produce, said, "This is the best team we've had since I've been here. We're optimistic. We believe this is a heck of a hockey team. We have something to prove and, come playoff time this year, hopefully we will be at a peak."

Langway said, "There is a lot of character this year compared to years past. We've got a hell of a hockey club and this is the closest team, except for the Montreal Canadiens, that I've ever been on."

Langway earned a Stanley Cup ring with the Canadiens in 1979. The pursuit of a second begins Thursday in Boston.

Hatcher is expected to miss at least eight games, after torn cartilage was removed from his left knee during arthroscopic surgery yesterday.

Hatcher's return tentatively has been set for Oct. 27 in Vancouver. Taking his place Thursday will be rookie Paul Cavallini, who celebrates his 22nd birthday next Tuesday. Cavallini played six games for Washington last season.

Cavallini's ascendancy to the role of sixth defenseman, after a slow start in camp, was confirmed yesterday when Kellin was sent to Binghamton, where he played last year. It was most welcome news, because Cavallini struggled during much of training camp and was ill for several days at Lake Placid.

"I worked hard this summer on getting my weight down and picking up speed," Cavallini said. "I put pressure on myself to perform, so I wouldn't go back down, and I played too cautious a game.

"That's not my style. I might not win every fight or make every pass, but when I'm on the ice the other five players against me should know I'm out there."

Murray said he planned to use Cavallini in spot duty Thursday, as a left-side partner for Larry Murphy, Greg Smith and possibly Langway.

"I want Paul to play with experienced people, so I might move Rod to the right side for a few shifts," Murray said. "We may get into a five-man rotation. Regardless, we'll have more movement than normal until Kevin gets back."

The McCoubrey Award, honoring the late sports copy editor of The Washington Post, is presented by the Washington Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association to a player who has contributed to the community.

Gartner last year initiated a campaign in which he offered to give Children's Hospital $50 for each goal he scored. Team owner Abe Pollin, fans and sponsors joined in and the hospital eventually received $41,000.

Gartner is repeating the venture and he hopes to top his 41-goal campaign, achieved after a difficult first half in which he managed only 10.

"I couldn't see anything I was doing differently -- the puck just wasn't going in," Gartner said. "So I kept doing the same things and it worked. I just hope I don't go through another stretch like that."

Gartner, the speediest Capital, appears faster than ever and his time of 36.6 seconds for the 300-yard shuttle at Lake Placid topped all his teammates by more than 1 1/2 seconds, a phenomenal margin.

"I feel I have a good jump and whether I'm a step faster or pounds lighter, I know I'm getting good bounce," said Gartner, at 185 three pounds under his previous playing weight. "Playing in the Canada Cup at such a high pace would tend to make you faster, I guess."

The Canada Cup, in which Gartner played a key role for Canada's championship team, has had a negative effect on players in the past, because regular NHL play seems a step slower and requires a mental adjustment.

"It's a legitimate concern and something I've thought of," Gartner said. "But I'm excited about the season. Dale Hunter (Gartner's center) is a hard-working, unselfish player, the kind of guy who's best suited to me. I'm a scorer and he gets me the puck a lot. I hope to contribute more this year."