During the regular season, the Quebec Nordiques averaged 4.5 goals a game; in 12 playoff contests, they have managed only 3.3. The opposition's scoring also has decreased, however, and what those figures indicate is that the Nordiques are capable of playing two kinds of hockey, just as Coach Michel Bergeron claimed all along.

"During the season you play to score goals," Bergeron said. "During the playoffs you play to win. You can't win a playoff series without a good defensive system."

In winning two playoff series they were expected to lose, against Montreal and Boston, the Nordiques have displayed tight checking, the last characteristic anyone would have associated with the Stastnys and speedy French Canadian friends.

As a consequence, when the Nordiques and New York Islanders begin the best-of-seven Prince of Wales Conference series tonight at Nassau Coliseum, there is not likely to be repetition of the regular-season meetings between the teams.

In three games that were divided on a 1-1-1 basis, Quebec had 19 goals, the Islanders 17. A December meeting on Long Island saw the Islanders prevail, 10-7. As luck would have it, the next visitors were the Washington Capitals, who were fortunate to score once against a New York team that can smother an opponents' offense when the motivation is there.

Besides motivation, the Islanders have a bit of an advantage tonight in stamina. They have been resting, more or less, since eliminating the Rangers Friday night. The Nordiques, who ousted Boston, 2-1, on Sunday, have gone the limit in both series, playing 12 games in 19 days.

"We're tired, but we'll be ready for the Islanders," Bergeron said. "When we beat Montreal, everybody said, 'It's over for Quebec. They've done what they wanted to do.' No. We want to win the Stanley Cup."

If anything, the fact that the fourth-place Nordiques could beat the top two teams in the Adams Division has boosted the confidence of young players who are forced to perform in key roles for a team lacking in depth. One of them, defenseman Dave Pichette, 22, was the hero in Boston with his game-winning power play goal at 9:39 of the third period.

"The Islanders won the Stanley Cup the last two years and they're a great team, but we're confident," Pichette said. "In a short series, you don't know what will happen. We were the underdog the last two series, but you have to win the games on the ice. We're playing a little bit tighter, waiting for opportunities. I think these will be tight games just like the last two series."

"Quebec is a way better team than the lay person thinks and they proved it once again," said Boston Coach Gerry Cheevers. "They played a very good checking game against us. I guess they found out against Montreal that's the best way to win."

Bergeron would give no hint of whether Dan Bouchard or John Garrett would be the starting goalie against the Islanders. Bouchard played the entire Montreal series and Game 1 against Boston, then was hospitalized with an undisclosed problem that required intravenous feeding. Garrett played well for five straight games, then Bouchard returned with a superb 28-save effort in the finale.

"It's a good problem," Bergeron said of the necessity to choose between the two.

While the Islanders continue their drive to a third straight Stanley Cup and the Nordiques bid for yet one more upset, the Vancouver Canucks will be in Chicago for the start of a Campbell Conference series that matches sub-.500 teams.

The Canucks took two of three from the Black Hawks this season, including a 4-1 decision in Chicago Stadium, but the Hawks have been hot lately, going 7-5-2 over the last month of the regular season and then eliminating Minnesota and St. Louis.

Of the four survivors, only one, the Islanders, was a division winner. Vancouver was second in the sorry Smythe Division, while Quebec and Chicago were fourth-place teams. The last sub-.500 club to reach the Stanley Cup final was St. Louis in 1968. Only two regular-season losers ever have won the Cup, Toronto (22-25-13) in 1949 and Chicago (14-25-9) in 1938.