A year ago, they stood behind the same bench. Tonight, Washington's Bryan Murray and Quebec's Ron Lapointe, two of the NHL's most volatile coaches, will be facing each other across 85 feet of ice at Le Colisee.

Only they know how much this first confrontation means to them. Neither will discuss the circumstances that led to Lapointe's dismissal last summer after two years as a Capitals assistant.

Lapointe is not complaining. He became head coach of the Fredericton Express in the American Hockey League, and 24 games into the NHL season, he was summoned to Quebec to replace Andre Savard.

"If it wasn't for the fact that the Washington organization hired me, I wouldn't be here today," Lapointe said in a telephone interview yesterday. "They gave me my initial break. Without throwing stones, I have to admit that the last couple of months in the press box last season I was treading water. That wasn't good for my career, but the experience in Washington was 99 percent good for me.

"I learned a lot working for Bryan, especially in organization and communication. What I learned most was patience. I'm hyper at times and you have to stay under control. The only thing I have to say is that I was maybe a little selfish at the end. I felt I had to do something else."

For a year and a half, Lapointe worked behind the bench with Murray. Suddenly, in the middle of last season, assistant Terry Murray joined brother Bryan and Lapointe became the press-box spotter, a job he loathed, in part because his suggestions from on high generally were ignored.

"We weren't going very well and we made the change because I wanted Terry to be able to talk to the defensemen, which is his primary area," Bryan Murray said.

Of Lapointe's departure, with no replacement named, Murray said, "Ron certainly had a real desire to be a head coach. We talked about that. He was a coach in junior {hockey} and he liked the involvement. He liked to make the decisions.

"{Capitals General Manager} David Poile encouraged him to apply to Pittsburgh while he was under contract here. And we talked about the possibility of a good AHL job, which is what came about."

Lapointe has resisted attempts by the persistent French media to explain his parting of the ways here, and he said, "David {Poile} and I have an agreement that I won't talk about it. The way things have come along, I'm very happy and I have no reason to stir things up."

Nevertheless, when Lapointe accepted the Quebec job, he said of tonight's game, "Even more than playing Montreal, I can't wait for Dec. 22. That's the first thing I checked, I'm so anxious to see my old friend Bryan Murray. I know all his tricks."

Yesterday Lapointe said, "Montreal means a lot to me, because I'm from there and it's the biggest rivalry in the league. But playing Washington is special to me. It will be special looking across the ice to see Bryan and Terry.

"It's really because we worked together, not because there are hard feelings. David Poile was the first one to congratulate me when I got this job. {Capitals president} Dick Patrick called, too. I have a lot of friends in Washington."

Lapointe now is winning friends in Quebec, especially among his players, who found themselves on a collision course from the start with Savard.

"This is my eighth year in Canada and Ron Lapointe is my third coach in pro hockey, and already I know he's the best," said veteran center Peter Stastny. "I like his meetings and approach with the players. You can feel him behind the bench. He talks all the time and makes sure what he says is well understood."

Lapointe said, "It's worked out fairly well so far. I've got to tread lightly and gain their respect. It's only been six games.

"I think I've been able to calm everything down and put some fun back in it again. You're paid a lot to play, but whether you're making $150,000 playing hockey or $6 a day in a shop, you have to enjoy it."

Lapointe has juggled the Quebec lines, placing former Capitals Gaetan Duchesne and Alan Haworth on the same unit. They were skating with Lane Lambert, until Lambert broke a finger Sunday against Detroit. Duchesne scored the winner in that one, on a setup by Haworth.

"Gaetan always gives you 100 percent and Howie has come along," Lapointe said. "But the guy who's really doing a job for us is Robert Picard {another former Capital}. He's been unbelievable, playing the best hockey of his career. I've known him since he was 14 and he's matured. He's a leader out there now."

Only one-half of the Capitals' Quebec connection figures to play tonight. Goalie Clint Malarchuk has been assigned backup duty, but center Dale Hunter should be highly visible.

"I left on good terms, not like I asked to be traded or had problems," Hunter said. "It's part of the hockey business. I think the fans understand that."

Capitals Notes:

The Capitals recalled defenseman Yves Beaudoin from Binghamton yesterday and indicated that he would play at least one of the games in Quebec or Montreal. Beaudoin, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday Jan. 7, had four goals and 16 assists in 25 games for the AHL Whalers. He has played 10 games for Washington in the past two seasons.