It will be the respected champion, just beginning to show a touch of the flab that comes with the good life, against the up-and-coming kid hungry for more of the unaccustomed joys of success when the New York Islanders play the Washington Capitals tonight at Nassau Coliseum. The Capitals have never won there.

The Islanders, with three straight Stanley Cups to commemorate recent glories, have been stumbling in recent weeks, lucky to compile a 7-11-7 record since Nov. 1. They still lead the Patrick Division, but Philadelphia and Washington are close enough to dream of a new year in the top spot.

The Capitals trail the Islanders by four points and have five games in hand. They also have that incomprehensible 13-game unbeaten streak to buoy them on their current voyage to unexplored high places.

"It's a crucial game in the standings," said Dennis Maruk, who has 10 points in the last five games. "If we win, we'd have 41 points to their 43 with all the games in hand. It would give us a crack to go after first place.

"We've got a big game here with the Flyers Sunday, too, because we want to stay up with them. It will be a big boost to our playing if we win these two. And, of course, the streak is in the back of our minds. We want to keep it going."

"This game is for first place, really," said Washington captain Rod Langway. "It's early in the season, but this is a four-point game in the division. It's important for other reasons, too. We haven't won in there and, most of all, we want to keep the streak going. The streak is very important to us, because we want to keep things going well.

"If things keep going the way they are, we have a good chance of home ice in the playoffs. That depends on injuries, of course, because we've got to be healthy. We're thin and we've already been hit by a few injuries -- maybe it's my fault, the way my partners keep getting hurt. But everybody has stepped in and pulled the load so far."

The latest of Langway's partners to be hurt was defenseman Randy Holt, who suffered a bruised left ankle Sunday in Philadelphia. Lee Norwood was recalled from Hershey yesterday to take Holt's place tonight.

"I thought about getting out Sunday, because I could back up but I couldn't turn, and Rod had to help me out anytime the man coming toward me passed off," Holt said. "But (Ray) Allison took a run at Scotty (Stevens) and it made me so mad, I forgot about the ankle until the game was over.

"It's swollen so much now, I can barely get my skate on. I can turn, but only at my speed. I can't turn at their speed and I don't want to be the cause for us losing a game."

Holt and Langway were outstanding after the injury occurred Sunday, on the ice for all three Washington goals, and Langway said, "Randy deserves a lot of credit for the way he's played. He's complemented me and helped me out. He's quite a defenseman for a guy who had a reputation around the league as a tough guy who couldn't really play."

Greg Theberge, an occasional partner for Langway, will occupy that duty full-time tonight, while Stevens is paired with Timo Blomqvist, another partner of Langway's until idled by bruised ribs. Paul MacKinnon will join Norwood as a part-timer.

Darren Veitch, who began the season alongside Langway and suffered a broken collarbone, is about a month away. Brian Engblom, Langway's old buddy from Montreal, has been skating to stay in shape and could be back Sunday if his cracked rib can be protected adequately.

Coach Bryan Murray feels the four-day break since Sunday's victory in Philadelphia will help the Capitals.

"I think we were a little tired in Philly, after playing eight games in 13 days, and the time off has got to be helpful, just for the recovery period," Murray said. "It's always nice to keep something like the streak going, but we've prepared like we do for most games and I just want them to go out and do the things we've been doing."

The Capitals, with a franchise 0-18-1 record in Nassau Coliseum, must concentrate on avoiding cheap penalties. The Islanders' power play clicks at better than 25 percent efficiency and Tuesday, in a 3-3 tie at Quebec, all the New York goals came in extra-man situations.

During the Quebec game, Islanders Coach Al Arbour suffered a shoulder separation when he attempted to prevent winger Bob Nystrom from leaving the bench to join a fight on the ice.

Al Jensen, whose 2.54 goals-against mark is second to the 2.52 of Boston's Pete Peeters, will be in the Washington nets tonight. He has an 8-1-4 record and has stopped 90 percent of the shots aimed his way, trailing only Chicago's Murray Bannerman in that department.

Pat Riggin, his sprained ankle much improved, will serve as backup. Dave Parro was returned to Hershey yesterday.