For the New York Islanders, tonight's visit to sold-out Capital Centre constitutes a preview of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the Washington Capitals, the game is of greater importance as an opportunity to escape a downward spiral.

"What's probably more important is for us to get back some of the intensity and good work that we displayed early on, but which has not been present in recent outings," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "I'm more interested in what we do as individuals, in us playing the way we can play, than in line matchups or other phases of the game."

Murray sat in the stands with General Manager David Poile Thursday night and watched the Capitals drop a 3-2 decision to New Jersey, their second loss to a last-place team in two nights. While the Devils played sound hockey, the Capitals were far removed from the team that had a 28-5-3 record from late November to early February.

"We're not playing with the same confidence we had before," Murray said. "And we're not playing with any intensity. We've been playing like this since the All-Star break. I would like to think there will be a fair amount of intensity tomorrow. It's important that we show up and get some offense out of players who haven't been contributing."

During March, the Capitals have a 5-8 record and only twice have they scored more than four goals, losing one of those games, 9-6, to Philadelphia.

There are as many theories for the Capitals' decline as there are fans at the Centre. Asked about it, Mike Gartner replied, "I think after we swept the Islanders in January we were already playing Edmonton for the Stanley Cup. We forgot there were 25 games to go."

On the same subject, Scott Stevens said, "There was a big press buildup about a final with Edmonton, but we never talked about it. Maybe some of the buildup got to us, but I don't really think so.

"The games don't mean a whole lot now and we've been struggling. But this should be a real intense game. If we can't get up for this game, we're in trouble. We need to win it for confidence."

Although the Capitals have prevailed on four of their last eight visits to Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders have won eight of the last 11 meetings at Capital Centre, including four straight playoff games.

In each of the last two seasons, the Islanders have come to Capital Centre in late March and scored decisive victories that no doubt gave them a lift for the playoff series that followed.

While the Capitals were losing in New Jersey Thursday, the Islanders were dropping a 4-2 decision in Quebec that they attributed to looking past the Nordiques toward tonight's game.

"You couldn't feel the same way about Quebec and Washington," said defenseman Stefan Persson. "Saturday has a lot more meaning for us. You get a bigger kick out of a game like that. We're building for the playoffs and we've got to put something into it if we want to get something out of it."

The Islanders, riddled by injuries all season, expect three of their skating wounded to return tonight -- defenseman Gord Lane and left wings Clark Gillies and Mats Hallin.

Left wing Bob Bourne, coming off hand surgery, will be available for the playoffs. Center Brent Sutter, who suffered a shoulder separation in a 6-4 victory over Washington March 16, is questionable for the playoff opener April 10. Left wing Greg Gilbert has been lost for the season following knee surgery.

Washington goalie Pat Riggin, who bruised his back in New Jersey Thursday, had problems handling shots in practice yesterday. Although he remains in contention for the Jennings Trophy (given to a goalie who has played at least 25 games for a team that allows the fewest goals), Riggin was unable to win a game in seven starts in March.

Al Jensen, who will be in goal tonight, has earned all five of the Capitals' victories this month, yielding nine goals in six starts.

Defenseman Mike McEwen will be back to lead the Washington power play. During the four games McEwen missed this month, the Capitals were one for 20 in extra-man situations. In the last seven he has played, they went 13 for 33.

"No question, the power play fell off quite a bit without him," Murray said.

Although Murray says he will not emphasize matchups tonight, he has reunited Gaetan Duchesne, Doug Jarvis and Bob Gould, no doubt with the intention of aligning them against John Tonelli, Mike Bossy and whatever center Coach Al Arbour puts between them.

Bossy has scored 23 goals in 21 regular-season games at Capital Centre. He has 57 overall this year, his eighth straight season over 50.