The Washington Capitals begin their 17th season tonight, hoping that the turbulence of summer will give way to triumph in the fall, winter and especially, the spring.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will be the first opponent for the 1990-91 regular season, which will spread 80 games over six months. The Penguins will visit Capital Centre for the 8 p.m. start without their best player and, possibly, the best in the game, Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux's back, which was operated on this summer, again is causing pain. Although no more surgery is planned, he will not play or practice for six to eight weeks and the Penguins aren't planning for him to be in uniform before the new year.

The Capitals' troubles are different, although they have an ailing back too.

Although beaten by Boston in the Wales Conference finals last season, Washington enters this season knowing it did better in the playoffs than ever before. The fact the team could finish in any number of spots in what should be another tight Patrick Division race doesn't bother it.

The summer was gut-wrenching. A grand jury deliberated and then decided not to indict four players implicated in an alleged sexual assault. Two of the four are gone. Scott Stevens, through free agency, and Geoff Courtnall, by trade, now are in St. Louis, taking with them 46 goals and 68 assists.

There are fewer than a 1,000 tickets left for the game tonight. Although two prominent local women's groups said they did not have definitive plans to protest this summer's incident, it is possible some persons on hand will. The players will be introduced individually tonight and it will be interesting to see the fans' reactions.

Training camp focused some of the discussion on the ice, but contractual problems are not yet solved. The Capitals may not know until this afternoon if Kevin Hatcher will play. The defenseman wants to renegotiate his contract, which has two years left.

"What's likely is that, if I'm signed, then I'll be in the lineup," Hatcher said. "If I'm not signed, then it's likely that I won't be in the lineup."

Hatcher's agent, Ron Salcer, met with General Manager David Poile and President Dick Patrick for about seven hours yesterday. The years of the deal apparently have been essentially resolved, but there's still a lot of cash separating them. There remains a difference of opinion on Hatcher's market value and value to the Capitals.

"We don't have it done, but we're still talking," said Poile, who will resume negotiations this morning.

"The problem is with the basics," Salcer said last night of the base salary under debate. "We're on the eve of critical negotiations."

Two trades in the past few days and the return of goalie Don Beaupre will help the Capitals over the season, but, for the moment, life is a bit unsettled.

"There is a little more distraction than you would like," Coach Terry Murray said. "I think that it will settle down quickly in the next couple of days. There are no other transactions taking place, other than sending some guys to Baltimore. We have some good veteran players who understand the situation. With the young guys who don't, the veterans will help them understand.

"One thing sometimes you have a problem with is that you try to move ahead with what you want to do on the ice. You get a point, but then we regroup again and it seems like we go back to square one. But again, I'm happy about it. I'm not complaining because the changes have been good."

Murray -- who will coach against his brother, Bryan, and the Detroit Red Wings Saturday night -- will begin his first full season.

"Having gone through a whole training camp with Terry is good, in that we'll have a whole year to work with his systems," defenseman Bob Rouse said. "We have two good goalies. I can't say if we're better or worse, but I'd like to think the team has improved."

With Beaupre back, the Capitals will have a strong goaltending tandem, probably the best in franchise history. Mike Liut, who has been one of the islands of consistency and calm in this fall's sea of confusion, will start in goal tonight. Beaupre arrived only Tuesday, but is in good enough shape that me may dress tonight as the backup. If not, then Jim Hrivnak will.

The top three lines are reasonably set and those nine will be counted on for much of the scoring this season. Will John Druce pick up where he left off in May? Early yesterday, Murray was still deciding among five forwards for a fourth line and among nine defensemen for six spots.

Rod Langway's 33-year-old back has been aching lately, but he practiced again yesterday.

"It looks good for tomorrow," Langway said after practice. "It depends on whether it tightens up."

Too many unknowns exist to predict how the 1990-91 Capitals will do. Last season's bunch didn't qualify for the playoffs until the 78th game, but then were simply splendid.

"It's hard to tell," Mike Ridley said. "There are a lot of different players. They are two different teams, with a new season. We finished off well last year, but that doesn't matter any more. All the other teams have changed some.

"If you look at the {Capitals'} team that came back from Moscow {last fall} and the team that finished the year, there were quite a few changes in there. It is still a team game, and we have to work hard as a team. I don't see why we shouldn't have success if we do that."