The Washington Capitals are faced with a devil's alternative: either fail to make the playoffs for the seventh straight year or face the New York Islanders in a best-of-five series next week.

The Capitals did nothing to help themselves today, as they dropped a 4-1 decision to the Islanders, who clinched first place by dominating a game in which Washington never threatened. But after the Capitals flew back into Baltimore, a phone call elicited the news that Quebec had tied Toronto, 5-5, and kept their postseason hopes alive.

"It will be a very nervous flight," said Dennis Maruk, whose 47th goal produced Washington's only score today, as he left Nassau Coliseum. "We have to pray now. Somebody up there has to help us."

The somebody was Quebec, the only team besides the Islanders that swept all four games from Washington this season. Now the Nordiques must provide additional help, by beating Toronto Sunday while the Capitals must beat Detroit in a 7 p.m. Capital Centre contest.

If the teams end in a tie, Toronto gets the playoff berth by virtue of more victories.

The latter task is not automatic, the Red Wings having won on their previous visit to Washington. And there is doubt whether the Capitals' other 47-goal scorer, Mike Gartner, will be able to play after he took a thumping third-period check from Dave Langevin. Gartner was headed for a hospital checkup in Washington tonight.

"I was coughing up a little blood and they want to check me out," Gartner said. "He nailed me, but it was a good check."

The decisiveness of the Islanders' victory today and the physical punishment the Capitals endured might make some folks wonder why Washington would want a playoff-style rematch, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was preferable to a seventh straight early vacation.

"I'd love to play them and we'll beat them, too," said Ryan Walter, the only Capital to use his body with much frequency against the physical Islanders.

"I want to play them again to be in the playoffs, to put our guys over that hump," said Coach Gary Green. "Sure, the odds will be 100-to-1 against us, but we'll still walk into the series thinking we can win."

Any thoughts the Capitals had of winning today were dispelled when the Islanders scored two goals in the first eight minutes. New York knew when it took the ice that St. Louis was being thrashed by Minnesota and a victory over Washington would clinch first place.

"We knew we could win today and not worry about going into Buffalo tomorrow at all," said Clark Gillies, whose 33rd goal made it 2-0 and turned the contest into a bout with boredom. "It's a good feeling to finish first. It proves a lot of things. So many guys on other teams said we couldn't repeat (although finishing fifth last year, the Islanders won the Stanley Cup). Bob Gainey (of Montreal) said the Islanders are a fourth-place team."

The Islanders' determination was evident in the checks Langevin delivered on Maruk and Denis Potvin landed on Gartner in the early moments. Then Garry Howatt produced the first score after only 3:44.

Wayne Merrick rifled a long shot that deflected off the leg of Washington defenseman Darren Veitch. Bob Nystrom retrieved it in the right-wing circle and, leaning on defenseman Howard Walker, sent a pass through the slot to Howatt, who sent an ice-hugger inside the near the near post before Palmateer could shift from left to right.

It was 2-0 after 7:18 as Gillies crossed the blueline on the left wing and sent a sizzling 60-foot shot through the legs of Palmateer, victim of a far-out screen by Washington defenseman Rick Smith.

"I got good wood on it, I got it just right," Gillies said. "Smith moved just a little out of the way and I guess he got in Palmy's vision."

New York controlled play the rest of the way, easily killing three second-period Washington power plays. Then Hector Marini made it 3-0 at 2:07 of the third period, six seconds after Washington's Rick Green was chased for holding.

Gillies' shot from the right-wing circle was mishandled by Palmateer and the puck trickled past him, coming to rest on the goal line, against the post at Palmateer's right. Marini nudged it the final inch.

Maruk deflected Veitch's slapshot through Islander goalie Roland Melanson with 5:21 remaining, but nobody was celebrating.

"It got up through his arm and came down behind him," Maruk said, "but it was too late."

Butch Goring completed the scoring on an empty net with 26 seconds left, moments after Palmateer skated off for a sixth forward. The goal brought an emotional outburst from the Islander players and created uproar among the 15,008 fans.

Gartner was hurt shortly before Maruk's goal and not long after Walker was knocked off balance into Palmateer, inspiring fears that either or both had been injured. The goal cage was knocked off its base and Walker's stick lodged beneath it, but referee Bob Myers did not stop play.

"I got a minor whiplash maybe, that's all," Palmateer said. "I thought I got out of that."

"I didn't hit anything, I sort of went into Palmy first," Walker said."A guy took my feet out from under me and there was nothing I could do. They were running a lot of interference all the time, they kick the feet out from under you and they use the stick all the time. I'd rather play Philadelphia."

Given no choice, however, he will settle for a rematch with the Islanders. Maybe.