The Washington Capitals longed all summer for the start of the 1990-91 season, so hockey would again be the focus of attention. When it arrived last night, the feeling was unfulfilling.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, minus Mario Lemieux, had no trouble scoring goals and departed Capital Centre with a 7-4 victory last night.

The Capitals were glad to see Kevin Hatcher in uniform, as the defenseman and his agent reached enough of an agreement with management to take the ice.

"Common sense prevailed," Capitals General Manager David Poile said.

But, alas, on the ice, the Capitals did not. The Penguins got two goals each from Kevin Stevens and Mark Recchi, and single goals from Paul Coffey, Barry Pederson and Joe Mullen. Stevens also had four assists for six points.

"We wanted to get off to a good start because everyone was doubting us," Stevens said. "We said to ourselves that we had to bear down."

The Capitals' scorers were Dale Hunter, Mike Ridley, Kelly Miller and Peter Zezel, but the home team never could get ahead in the count and seemed back on its heels.

The Penguins built a 3-1 lead, only to see the Capitals tie the score twice, the last time at 4. But Stevens got the game-winner on a shot through Hatcher's feet with 7:15 left and the doors fell off soon after.

"We got into situations where we tried to do a little too much," defenseman Bob Rouse said. "In that situation, you get running around a little too much. If anything, we were too up for the game. We wanted to do well and have a good show in front of the fans."

The night started with a blast of adrenaline for the Capitals. The players were introduced individually before the game, and the crowd of 17,772 stood applauding throughout. The fans stretched out the names of Mike Liut and John Druce and gave the venerable Rod Langway a big hand.

But no one drew any louder applause than Dino Ciccarelli -- the only one of the four players involved in this summer's incident in Georgetown who is still with Washington.

"As a fan, it was interesting to see what happened," Langway said. "I think it was positive. But we didn't play well in the first period."

Liut was in goal for the Capitals and, if he hadn't been sharp from the start, this would have been over in the first period.

Shortly after Liut made a great save on a shot by Cullen, the Penguins center stole a midair pass by Hatcher and fed Stevens. He skated across the goal mouth and flicked a backhander past the sprawled Liut.

The Capitals' power play last season was weak at best, ranked 19th in the NHL. Last night that was one of the positive signs, as Washington converted three of six chances.

Bryan Trottier was playing his first game as a Penguin after 15 years with the New York Islanders, whom he left in bitter fashion. He was in the penalty box when Hunter moved out from the corner to Barrasso's left and lifted a backhand over the goalie's glove for a 1-1 tie with 13:15 left.

But less than two minutes later, Stevens fed Coffey coming down the slot to push the Penguins back into the lead.

The margin went to 3-1 with five minutes gone in the second period when Pederson scored a power-play goal, one of two the Penguins had in seven attempts.

"We can't take 20 minutes in penalties," Langway said.

Ridley, off a Hunter feed, cut the deficit to 3-2, and Miller beat Barrasso the same way Hunter did for a 3-3 tie with 12:56 left in the third period.

But the Penguins caught the Capitals chasing on a power play and Mullen wrapped a goal around the post. Zezel scored his first goal as a Capital for a 4-4 tie with 7:53 left.

But again, Washington couldn't climb over the hump. Stevens scored with 7:15 left and Recchi scored twice to prevent the Capitals from winning their 500th game in franchise history.

This was the first NHL game for two the best players from Czechoslovakia, Washington's Peter Bondra and Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr. Just 18, Jagr is the youngest player in the NHL, but he has a sense of history. He wears No. 68, honoring his countrymen who died when the Soviets invaded his nation in 1968 -- almost four years before Jagr's birth.

This also was the Pittsburgh debut for Bob Johnson, the former University of Wisconsin and U.S. Olympic coach. After leaving Calgary following the 1986-87 season, Johnson spent three years as executive director of USA Hockey.

So it had been a long time since Badger Bob had taken his notebook behind the bench for a real game in the NHL.

"It's not like it's the 58th game or the 78th game," Johnson said after the morning skate. "It's opening night and it's always a little extra special."

By the end of last night, it was much more so for the Penguins.