When the New York Islanders skated onto the ice at Nassau Coliseum for this morning's practice, they found themselves in the dark. It hardly was an unusual situation for Coach Al Arbour, who, because of a series of injuries, has been in the dark about his starting lineup for a year and a half.

When the lights came on 10 minutes later, trainers scurried about making last-minute changes in the assignment of practice jerseys. Three recuperating players had to be utilized just to organize four lines for the workout.

"We've never practiced with the same guys for a year and a half," Arbour said. "Some days you can't help but get upset about it. It throws continuity off. You can't practice anything. For a long time, we were relatively free of injuries, but the last year and a half we've been hit hard. What really burns me up is when somebody tells me it's because we're an old team. Guys like (Pat) LaFontaine (20), (Mikko) Makela (20) and (Greg) Gilbert (23) -- are these old guys?"

Capital Centre habitues who attend Friday's opener of a back-to-back, home-and-home series between the Islanders and Washington Capitals will note that much of New York's muscle has been relegated to the injury list.

Among the missing will be Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Brent Sutter, Bob Bassen, Gilbert and Makela. LaFontaine and Roger Kortko, both of whom skipped today's practice because of the flu, are likely to play, but General Manager Bill Torrey planned to call up at least one replacement from Springfield of the American Hockey League for weekend duty.

"They're on alert down there," Arbour said. "The only question is how many."

The roster of the fit, at least this week, includes most of the familiar faces -- Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, John Tonelli, Bob Bourne and Bill Smith -- that have made the Capitals miserable through the years, with special emphasis on playoff eliminations for three straight seasons.

Bourne, who suffered torn rib cartilage in an exhibition game, returns to action for the first time Friday, and Arbour said, "I'd like to break him in slowly, because it takes a while to get your skating legs in game situations. But I don't have that luxury. I might strap an oxygen tank on his back tomorrow."

Arbour celebrates his 53rd birthday on Friday and he has been coaching the Islanders longer than the Capitals have been in existence.

The fact that this is Arbour's 13th season with the Islanders is not considered a factor in the club's mounting misfortunes, at least not yet. Arbour insists he left his superstitions behind when he hung up his skates in 1970. "Now I just suffer," he said.

While the Islanders were winning four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, Arbour was under considerable strain and annually in the spring there have been reports that he is retiring.

"We have to start rebuilding and we're going to face some tough times," Arbour said. "Some older players have to be moved out . . . and I think I should be the one to guide the changeover.

"It was a strain, five straight years in the Stanley Cup final. It takes a lot out of you and there's not much time to recover. But I'd rather have things tough than have an early exit like last year. This isn't the easiest job in the world. You have to realize that before you take it."

Today Arbour brought a blackboard onto the ice and for about 15 minutes he explained some tactics while the players stood or sat and watched the coach. It was an exercise in concentration. Not one player looked anywhere except at Arbour's eyes the entire time.

Perhaps they feared inattention would bring a scathing comment from the man whose only words after Tuesday's 3-2 loss here to the Los Angeles Kings were: "I think we'll get the team fitted with ballet tights so they can tiptoe around out there."

Arbour never has been one to accept mediocrity. There has been talk through the years that the Islanders did not take the regular season seriously, secure in the knowledge that they could turn it on in the playoffs. However, accepting losses never has been in Arbour's makeup.

"We always have a battle with Washington and playing back to back right now is very important for this time of year," Arbour said. "We haven't been burning up anything and they started slowly, but they've been playing well despite their injuries. I'm looking forward to it, but I wish we had a set lineup from one day to the next."

Although the Islanders rallied to win three straight from Washington in the playoffs a year ago, including the finale at Capital Centre, Trottier indicated that New York would prefer not to face that situation again.

"We'd much rather finish ahead of Washington and get the extra home game," Trottier said. "It was nerve wracking before that fifth game in Washington. It means a lot to play in front of home fans and relax in your own bed. It's a more comfortable position, if you need to be in that position.

"Two points now mean just as much as two points in March. You can't take a rest anywhere or teams will be breathing down your neck for a playoff spot. You can't scratch out your little mistakes later in the year.

"I'm sure both teams will want to establish themselves early. Win, lose or draw, we know the Caps come to play and we look forward to a great, great weekend."