The New York Islanders, fighting for first place in the National Hockey League, come to Capital Centre for a 1:30 p.m. game today against the Washington Capitals, who are struggling to attain the more modest status of 16th place and a first-ever berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

More tired than triumphant after road victories in Philadelphia and Detroit, the Capitals lost to lowly Hartford, 5-3, Friday at Capital Centre. That extended their home-ice winless streak to five games and left the Capitals with only two victories in their last 11 efforts at the Centre.

A sub-.500 record at home, 15-16-7, is no way to gain a playoff spot and the Capitals know it. Doing something about it is something else.

"We can't seem to get things going in this building," said Pat Ribble, a big man in more ways than one on the Capital defense. "We had confidence coming off the road, we had confidence in our goaltender (Gary Inness) and we knew how important that game was. But we couldn't get the goals.

"Maybe we relax more on the road and maybe we're afraid of making mistakes here. We might have been a little tight out there. Whatever, it's certainly frustrating to lose a game like that."

It has been a frustrating season for the Capitals, who held 10th place for so long and now are threatened with another 17th-and-out finish. If they do tap out again, it will not be for lack of effort. Ribble is a prime example of the selflessness so many players have displayed.

"We got Ribble as a fifth defenseman last year and he's fulfilling that and a lot more," said Coach Gary Green. "But he needs to watch himself, particularly as far as his weight goes, and to do that he has really sacrificed a lot. He has disciplined himself, he's watching his weight, his protein intake, the fuel factor. It hasn't been easy for him."

Ribble's weight was above 235 pounds a year ago, when he was shuffled from Chicago to Toronto to Washington and spent more time sitting than skating. At training camp, however, he slimmed down to 220 and started playing the best hockey of his life.

After 32 games this season, the 6-foot-3 Ribble boasted aplus-eight rating and, with Rick Green hurt, had become the leader of the Capitals' defense. But on Dec. 20, he suffered strained ligaments in his right knee and was forced to stay off skates for three weeks.

Returning to the lineup, he managed to build his rating up to plus-10 before being idled again by a bruised spleen, incurred in Vancouver Feb. 3. Returning for three games, he suffered a bruised elbow in practice and was a spectator for several more days. The accumulated idleness caught up with him, his weight zoomed to 225 and his rating skidded to minus-13. In a 16-game stretch, from Feb. 12 to March 22, Ribble was minus-22.

Last week, he finally returned to his early season form, skating better, blocking shots all over the Washington zone and even carrying the puck up ice.

"After that first injury, to my knee, it took me a while to get going," Ribble said. "It was awful tough, because I couln't skate for three weeks. Then with the spleen I didn't want to come home, but the doctors said it could be bad. Those four or five days off hurt. A big guy will have a weight problem and I went up to two and a quarter three weeks ago.

"I'm down to 217 now and I'm skating better and my legs feel better than they have for a while. But I have to gear myself up every day. I've quit drinking the last four months and I've been eating good stuff, a lot of salads. I've always been a junk-food junkie and I miss it, but I had to do it. We're so close to the playoffs, every guy has to do everything he can."