Another Islanders loss? Could this actually be getting serious?

The three-time Stanley Cup champions went through a four-game winless streak last week, including two consecutive losses at home, where they hadn't been defeated in 30 games. They beat St. Louis Tuesday, but two nights ago, in Minnesota, the Islanders lost, 2-0.

"Isn't it awful, they went and lost those games," Capitals Coach Bryan Murray deadpanned. But Murray, whose team faces the Islanders tonight at 8 at Capital Centre, doesn't believe for an instant that the New York club is skating downhill.

"I think maybe they'll go in streaks, playing four or five great games," he said. "Then they'll go to sleep because they're thinking automatically they'll win. If the Islanders aren't emotionally up for a game, that's about the only chance any team will have to catch them."

Less than thrilled with his team's 12-5-2 beginning, New York Coach Al Arbour thinks the Islanders haven't achieved their fine-tuned best yet because players haven't been hitting enough or "taking a little piece out of the guy."

"These are the things we are just not doing," he said after the Islanders lost, 6-3, to visiting Philadelphia. "I don't think we have reached a fine edge yet this year."

A glance at Islanders history shows this team has a habit of sliding, if only briefly, before regaining form. During last year's playoffs, the Islanders dropped a pair of games to Pittsburgh and found themselves a game away from a premature summer vacation.

"We didn't panic," Bob Nystrom, an original Islander, said then. "We got back on track, didn't think about the losses, and won it."

This season, Nystrom says, "we certainly are struggling a little bit, though we have played fairly well in the last couple games.

" . . . Early in the season, we had some games where maybe we didn't have to play that hard, and we won anyway," he said after yesterday's practice. "We got into some bad habits--it's human nature to take things the easy way. But we're getting there."

Coming off the Minnesota loss, Nystrom said, and facing the Capitals, has the Islanders "pumped up."

"No doubt, we'll be out there flying," he said.

Murray knows that. "Everybody gets up for us, but after the way we played in the second half (of Wednesday's New Jersey game), we'll give them a heck of a time," he said. "The biggest difference between us is that they're deeper."

Indeed, the Islanders are knee deep in productive personnel. The NHL's statistical breakdown is dotted with "NYIs." Mike Bossy shadows Wayne Gretzky in the league scoring race. In 18 games, Bossy has 15 goals and 15 assists.

Bryan Trottier isn't far behind, nor is Bob Bourne or Denis Potvin. Butch Goring tops the league in short-handed goals.

Then there's goaltending. "Best one in the league," said Murray when asked about Billy Smith. "He'll do anything to win, and I'll never object to that."

Some teams do object to Smith's fondness for brandishing his stick and getting into the fray. "He's never done it to our guys, but I have seen it in playoff games," Murray said. "He's an intimidator; he'll get you by stopping the puck cold, and if you try to do a thing to him, he'll get you there, too. He gets involved, maybe when he notices the guys are a little flat. It gets the team fired up. And it works."

All-star defenseman Potvin will miss tonight's game. He also missed the Minnesota game with muscle spasms on the left side of his neck. According to a team spokesman, the condition is expected to show marked improvement in the next two or three days.