Pat Riggin, starting in goal for the Capitals tonight in Uniondale, N.Y., in the team's first playoff game, was asked about his New York Islanders counterpart, Billy Smith.

Reluctant to say anything too controversial about an opposing goalie, Riggin replied, "Well, I'm going out to beat him." But, he added, less cautiously, "I've never been a big fan of Smith's. I admire the guy's determination to win, but I think if he played with another team besides the Islanders, he'd be put in his place."

Riggin's style in the net is what Washington Coach Bryan Murray calls "the butterfly kind of save, aggressive game," while Smith's leans toward free-swinging slashes and kicks at the opposition. Mostly, he pulls such stunts with no penalty.

"As long as they (officials) want to accept that stuff, he'll get away with it," Murray said after the Capitals' game on Long Island last month.

But this season, Smith (18-14-7, 2.87 goals-against average) has seemed somewhat tamer. His 41 penalty minutes were up from last season's 24 mostly because of several scuffles with Vancouver's Dave Williams.

Smith prides himself on being the Islanders' playoff goalie, a status he achieved the first year New York won the Stanley Cup. After Al Arbour replaced him with Glenn Resch and watched the Islanders drop a game to Los Angeles, the Islanders' two-goalie playoff rotation was abandoned. Resch played one more game to give Smith a rest, but Billy Smith was installed as the playoff man for the team.

Last week, before Arbour had announced which goaltender, Smith or Roland Melanson, would start tonight's game, Smith said he felt he deserved the assignment because of his previous playoff performances.

"I think they owe me that," he said. "After the first one, I don't know who will play, but if I'm not the one playing, I won't blow my top. It's not the time for that."

While the Capitals are aware of his ability in the postseason, they also have a good idea what kind of tactics they'll see down around Smith's cage.

"In a couple of games I've seen, he's been really vicious; just vicious," Riggin said. "I know I'll use my stick sometimes, to clear an area as a warning, but never to go after anybody. He does. That kind of thing can hurt them (Islanders)."

Rod Langway agreed. "You have to respect him because he wins," he said. "He'll do what he thinks he has to to help his team win. You expect that from our goalies, too. But if a referee sees that stuff and he (Smith) gets a call in a big game, it could end up costing two goals. Usually, though, he'll really start with it only when a game is out of reach for the other team."

Out of reach is definitely not where Riggin wants to see tonight's game heading. "The first period will be crucial," he said. "For my game, especially. After that one, we can come back inside (to the dressing room) and have a pretty good idea of the direction the game is taking. That's how it was in Boston (March 17). I knew they wouldn't get a goal. Well, so they got one."

Riggin said he wasn't too surprised to be tapped as goaltender for the first game, but added, "It really could've gone either way. I know Al (Jensen) must be disappointed, but I know, too, he said he'd be ready, just the way I would be if I was the one not starting.

"As for Billy Smith, I really don't want to talk about him. I'd rather beat him."