Pat Riggin, the little goalie who seems to thrive in opposing arenas, will guard the Washington Capitals' net in the team's first-ever playoff game Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum against the New York Islanders.

In selecting Riggin over Al Jensen for the opener, Coach Bryan Murray mentioned yesterday Riggin's experience and ability to perform on the road, as well as Jensen's greater success at Capital Centre.

Riggin posted a 10-3-7 record away from home this season, but broke even (6-6-2) at home. Jensen was 16-4-3 at Capital Centre, 6-8-3 on the road.

"I've had tough luck in this rink and I'd rather start on the road," said Riggin, who before yesterday's practice at Capital Centre conferred with maintenance personnel on needed repairs to the dressing-room gate; the yellow strip along the bottom juts out and around-the-boards passes occasionally deflect in front of the goaltender.

"The lighting here is not real great, either," Riggin added. "It is so dark in the stands that there frequently is no background when the puck goes high. It's great for the spectators, but not for the goaltender."

Riggin had played brilliantly for more than two months until he faced the Islanders at Capital Centre Wednesday and yielded seven goals in 24 shots. He returned to play one period in Sunday's 3-0 victory over the New York Rangers, then was yanked while Jensen completed the shutout.

"When Pat got that shutout period, I wanted to pull him out and give him a feeling of confidence," Murray said. "He has played well in most of his outings and he's cool and confident. I feel from the pressure point of view, maybe the first game is something he could identify with.

"Al will play in the series, depending of course on how Pat performs. I want Al to watch the first game, get a bit of a feel for it and see what he can pick up on his own. Al looked good at home against the Islanders, but the last two games on the island we were outplayed and he gave up a fair number of goals (14 in five periods). You might call Al our ace in the hole. We don't want to show a full hand off the bat."

Jensen, 24, never has played in a Stanley Cup game, although he has helped teams to three playoff championships--Hamilton in the 1976 Memorial Cup, Kalamazoo in the 1979 Turner Cup and Adirondack in the 1981 Calder Cup. He accepted yesterday's decision with his usual smile and promise to be ready when needed.

Riggin, 23, played in 14 Stanley Cup games with Calgary the last two seasons. Two years ago, in the seventh game of the quarterfinals at Philadelphia, he stopped 31 shots as the Flames upset the Flyers, 4-1.

"That was awfully exciting playing against Philly and we won," Riggin said. "The intensity is cranked up so much more in the playoffs. It's an exciting time of year to play. I'm pleased to be starting. Every hockey player has a little pride and if I didn't start I'd be disappointed.

"In a short series like it is (best of five), the first game is very key. We want to get off right and the first period will be crucial. The pressure will be there on everybody. I'm sure we'll be pumped up and everybody will give his best effort. It's our intention to win one up there."

All of the Capitals practiced yesterday, although Mike Gartner, who lost six pounds to influenza last week, was limited in his work by Murray. Alan Haworth, who missed the Ranger game with a bruised knee, skated with minimal difficulty and Chris Valentine, who suffered a bruised hip Sunday, was able to maneuver despite considerable soreness.

Murray said he would use four lines against the Islanders, who prefer to go with three and often double-shift Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier.

"I want to move four lines through to start the series and if we can walk out of there with a win, the longer the series goes the better off we'll be for it," Murray said. "From a conditioning point of view, we play more people than most other teams, and that's certainly true of the Islanders.

"We were tired playing four games in five nights last week, but this time the team we're playing has to do the same and I'm hoping it will pay off."

Glen Currie finished with a plus 18 rating to nip linemate Bob Gould by two for the trophy Emery Edge is presenting to the player on each team with the best plus-minus figure. Edmonton's Charlie Huddy led the NHL with plus 62, two better than teammate Wayne Gretzky.

"When you don't score too often, something like this means a little more," Currie said. "It subs for goals and assists. But it can be a close thing, like in Detroit where we scored just as I took two steps on the ice to replace Jarvie (Doug Jarvis). He really deserved the plus on that one."

Randy Holt led the NHL in penalties for the first time with 275 minutes.