The Tynecastle side were in command for most of the game at Balmoral Stadium on the outskirts of Aberdeen and should have won in more comfortable fashion, but they were made to sweat towards the end after Paul McManus pulled one back for Cove Rangers, the Highland League champions, with 15 minutes remaining.
Hearts manager Craig Levein gave first competitive starts to seven of his 12 summer signings – Zdenek Zlamal, Peter Haring, Olly Bozanic, Lee, Bobby Burns, Jake Mulraney and MacLean. Another three, Kevin Silva, Uche Ikpeazu and Ryan Edwards, were on the bench, with Steven Naismith, who was suspended, and Ben Garuccio the only new recruits not involved. Adding further freshness to the Hearts side was the sight of homegrown 19-year-old Callumn Morrison making his first start for the club almost three years after last appearing as a substitute. The youngster was deployed at right wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation. Unsurprisingly, there was no place in the Cove starting line-up for Cove midfielder Jordon Brown, who suffered a serious head injury in Sunday’s friendly against Aberdeen.
The Tynecastle side, who endured a dismal Betfred Cup campaign a year ago as they crashed out at the group stage under Ian Cathro, looked in purposeful mood from the outset and dominated the first half against a Cove side playing their first competitive match at their impressive new ground following two nomadic years since leaving Allan Park.
The visitors’ first chance signalled their intent after three minutes when Burns saw a close-range effort deflected behind after he got on the end of a cross from Mulraney. Christophe Berra headed over from the resulting corner, which was delivered by Lee. The opening goal came in the 11th minute when Lee played a one-two with Kyle Lafferty before rasping a low shot beyond Stuart McKenzie from the edge of the box.
Cove’s first and only real chance of the first half arose in the 18th minute, but John Souttar stood firm to stop Mitchell Megginson finding the net from 12 yards out.
Albeit against Highland League opposition, Hearts were playing with notable zest at times, and Mulraney, who brought an injection of pace to his new team’s attacking play, fired a low, angled half-volley just beyond McKenzie’s left-hand post in the 21st minute after Lafferty had played a cross from the right into his path.
After both Burns and Mulraney threatened from distance, Lafferty was then denied from close range by McKenzie on the half hour but the offside flag was raised by the time MacLean turned in the rebound. The veteran former St Johnstone was then thwarted by MacKenzie from ten yards out.
In a rare Cove foray forward, Souttar timed a tackle to perfection as Megginson broke into the Hearts half and threatened to get himself clean through on Zlamal.
The defender was involved at the other end a minute later when his looping header was cleared off the line by Darren Kelly after MacLean’s presence had caused McKenzie to flap at a high ball.
Hearts were denied by another goal-line clearance straight after the restart when Ryan Strachan stopped Bozanic slamming in the rebound after McKenzie could only parry a Mulraney shot into his path following a blistering run from the impressive former Inverness winger.
A second goal looked inevitable and it arrived in the 57th minute when MacLean prodded in from close range after Haring flicked on a Bozanic corner.
The visitors should have added a third on the hour when Lee played an incisive one-two with MacLean, burst into the box and rounded McKenzie, but the former Luton Town midfielder rolled his effort against the post.
Hearts looked in total control until McManus pulled one back for Cove when he tapped in with 15 minutes left.
That made for a finale slightly more fraught than it should have been for the Edinburgh side, considering the level of dominance they had enjoyed for most of the match.