The battle lines are drawn for the third edition of the Stanley Cup playoff rivalry between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders. Mentally and physically, the twice-beaten Capitals seem better prepared this year.

In each of the last two seasons, the Islanders came to Capital Centre in late March and scored a decisive regular-season victory. The effects of those games carried over to the playoffs, with Washington unable to win on home ice while dropping 3-1 and 4-1 verdicts.

Saturday, in similar circumstances, New York paid another visit. With Craig Laughlin scoring the first of his two goals less than four minutes into the game, Washington led all the way to post a 4-3 victory. Additionally, the Capitals took a season series from the Islanders for the first time (4-3).

"It was a psychological battle," said Mike Gartner, whose 47th goal and 500th NHL point was the game winner. "The game didn't mean anything in the standings, but it will mean something when the playoffs come. We'll know we can beat them here and they'll know it, too."

Dave Christian felt the victory gave the Capitals a mental lift beyond the framework of the playoffs. "It was a big thing for our confidence," Christian said. "We played better than we had been. Beating them was one thing, and it was important. But the fact we did a better job and got back to our good forechecking means more."

The Islanders outmuscled the Capitals in the last two playoff series, but Washington Coach Bryan Murray felt that his club's willingness Saturday to grind it out with New York is an indication of a turning tide.

"It's going to be a real struggle when we get into the playoffs," Murray said. "It will be a very tough, physical series. But I think we match up better physically than last year.

"Lou Franceschetti and Greg Adams playing on a regular basis gives us a lot more muscle against those guys. We've taken smaller players out, solely for the basis of the playoffs."

Franceschetti, Adams, Bob Carpenter, Craig Laughlin, Scott Stevens and Bengt Gustafsson all threw their weight around Saturday, several times luring the Islanders into retaliatory penalties that played an important part in the outcome.

Not one goal came with the teams at full strength. Each club converted three power plays. Gartner scored with both teams short-handed. More important, the Islanders' bid to tie was hindered by their playing short-handed for eight minutes of the last 12:20 because of penalties.

"I'm playing smarter than last year," said Adams, who displayed his strength by throwing Patrick Flatley to the ice in the only confrontation to draw by major penalties. "Last year I tried to play tough, but I just wound up in the penalty box. It's smarter to hit guys legally, then let them take the cheap shots and go in the box."

"This was playoff hockey -- tough and close checking," Franceschetti said. "We're not giving an inch and neither are they. If we back off, they'll take advantage, so we've got to stand up to them every second."

"It'll be a good war, with the good guys winning," said Laughlin, a streak scorer who got hot with four goals in the first four playoff games a year ago.

Gustafsson, a frequent target of Islanders rough stuff in the past, showed Saturday that he is capable of taking care of himself. He capped a superb all-round night by flattening Anders Kallur and Duane Sutter on the same third-period shift.

"Those things happen; they step in and I'm ready for them," Gustafsson said. "I've been coming on for a long time. Maybe all the rest (six weeks off with a pulled hamstring) is helping. It's always easy to get ready for the Islanders. They're always big games and it makes it easier mentally."

"Gus is really playing well and the last two weeks he's played very strong hockey," Murray said. "He scored some big goals last year, but maybe now he's as good as he's ever been since I came here. He's playing physically stronger on a regular basis and it could be the time off that's helping."

Murray gave the entire team a day off yesterday, the last until the season ends sometime between April 13 and June 4.

The Capitals have three regular-season games remaining, at Hartford Thursday and Pittsburgh Saturday, then home against the Penguins Sunday. The best-of-five playoff series against New York begins April 10 at Capital Centre.

Al Jensen, who made a big save on Kallur in the closing seconds to preserve the victory, has tied Pat Riggin with 64 career victories as a Capital . . . Jensen had a 6-2 record in March; Riggin was 0-6. Murray declined to speculate on who would open the playoffs . . . Mike Bossy failed to score a goal for the first time in 10 regular-season appearances at Capital Centre. Checked closely by Gaetan Duchesne, he managed only one shot . . . The sellout boosted the Capitals' average attendance to 14,068 . . . Stevens celebrates his 21st birthday today.