It should be a sneak preview of the upcoming playoffs. The Washington Capitals, trailing the Islanders by two points, will play the defending Stanley Cup champions in Uniondale today at 5 p.m, hoping to tie New York and edge closer to a second-place divisional finish.

With the playoffs just over three weeks away, Washington's first-round opponent likely will be the Islanders, and a second-place finish for the Capitals would give them the home-ice advantage.

"They (the Islanders) are not playing outstanding hockey," said Coach Bryan Murray after yesterday's practice. "They're playing the way they can play--pretty well. But after their top line, they can be pretty much like a lot of other teams."

Murray was in Pittsburgh Thursday night to scout the Islanders in a 4-3 victory over the Penguins. "After seeing them against somebody else, I really think we've got a chance," he said. "Our inexperience could be a factor, but our team speed could compensate. It's good to be challenging them all the way down the stretch, too."

In previous years, the Capitals usually spent March jockeying for a playoff slot. Now, says Murray, "we're concentrating on specific teams, breaking down game films."

The Islanders are primed for this game. "It's all they were talking about in Pittsburgh," Murray said. "Big confrontation with the Capitals."

Just a month ago, when the Capitals last met the Islanders, the teams were tied for second place. Washington lost, 8-3, in a struggle reminiscent of Capitals' teams past.

But that was just after the all-star break, with the Capitals coming back from a bit of rest. Players cited lack of preparation for that performance, which will not be the case today.

"This time we'll see a very close checking kind of game," said Dennis Maruk. "We're so up for this one and I know they are, too. The Islanders have had a sort of odd year, up and down. For us, this will be the kind of game you play going into the playoffs."

Murray said he does not foresee the Islanders playing at a much higher level than they are now. "They were pretty intense during that third period (against Pittsburgh), and you really don't get that much better than that," he said. "I don't think a team can really hide what it can do all season long. You don't just turn it on and off. Not that they're having a bad year. Look, they're two points ahead of us, and we're having a great year."