The Washington Capitals are hoping to catch the New York Islanders coming and going when the teams meet tonight at 8 at Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders clobbered the hated New York Rangers, 6-3, in their most recent outing Thursday night. On Sunday, the New York clubs stage a rematch at Madison Square Garden. Who's going to worry about the little young Capitals with all that going on?

The Islanders ought to worry, if they can remember a Jan. 15-16 series, in which they gained a victory and a tie while outscoring Washington, 4-3.

Despite the intracity emphasis, the usual sellout crowd of 15,317 is likely to exhibit its usual unhealthy display of nonsportsmanship tonight. The mere presence of a large number of people makes this an unusual game for one of the Capitals, winger Craig Patrick.

Patrick has carried a Joe Btfsplk image around the National Hockey League in recent years, playing for the only two teams, California and Kansas City, to disappear from the NHL since 1942. His other NHL alma mater, St. Louis, isn't very healthy, either. And this season Patrick was a member of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, whose expiration from the World Hockey Association preceded the negotiations that brought him here.

"It hasn't depressed me any," Patrick said yesterday, after practice at Fort Dupont. "Deep down inside, subconsciously, it might affect your play but you always try to do your best, whether there are 20,000 people in the stands or just three. I'm sorry those teams had to fold, but I'm glad I'm here right now."

Coach Tom McVie is pleased, too, after puzzling over the reasons the 30-year-old Patrick bounced around so much in recent years.

"I watched him a year or so ago," McVie said, "and I liked him. But when I asked around about him, guys said, 'Aah.' He always played pretty good against the good teams. In Japan, (Guy) Charron stuck out, but Patrick looked better than the rest. Then in November, when we were in Minnesota, I went to see him against Quebec. (Real) Cloutier and (Marc) Tardif were out there, but Patrick was the best player on the ice.

"I decided that I didn't care what anyone said, I liked him. He wasn't flashy, but I liked the way he played.

"I think a lot of people have made a mistake on the guy. He's a conditioning nut and he fits into what we're trying to do. I have a gut feeling that playing with our hockey club he can play better than ever. If I can get him to play 20 per cent better, we'll have a hell of a hockey player."

Patrick scored in his first game as a Capital, Wednesday at Los Angeles, and insists he is more than just a checker.

"I consider myself a two-way hockey player," he said. "I always work on the offensive part more than defense. I want to try to change my defensive title."

Patrick admits to a penchant for extra conditioning, and is proud of the fact that he held up under McVie's initial testing.

Besides his affinity for hard work, Patrick has the benefit of hockey breeding. His grandfather, Lester, is a Hall of Famer, and his father, Lynn, and uncle, Muzz, are among the NHL's all-time stars. All three coaches the Rangers, in the days before the Islanders captured the town.

Thursday Patrick called his father to offer 65th-birthday congratulations. It was not an especially happy occasion, since Lynn had been dropped by the financially strapped Blues the day before, after 10 years as executive vice president.

"He wasn't surprised," Craig said. "Something had to give, with the financial problems and taxes and everything."

It's a story Craig Patrick had heard before.