The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders sparred in indecisive fashion over the weekend, dividing 5-3 decisions, and now they set their heated rivalry aside until Jan. 24.

After 3 1/2 weeks of competition, the Patrick Division resembles a pack of hounds being outdistanced by one fleet fox, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals, in second place with 12 points, are closer to sixth-place Pittsburgh (9) than they are to the Flyers (16 before last night's meeting with Los Angeles).

Under the NHL's strange scheduling, the Capitals do not face Philadelphia again until Jan. 9. So they will have to try to gain ground at the expense of lesser opponents, commencing with Tuesday's Capital Centre visit by the Chicago Black Hawks, who have dropped their last four decisions to Washington and have not won here since Dec. 19, 1981.

When it was suggested that neither the Capitals nor the Islanders looked like worthy challengers for first place during their mistake-filled weekend series, Islanders Coach Al Arbour cited a major reason for the teams' obvious deficiencies.

"They're not healthy and we're not healthy," Arbour said. "It makes a big difference. We want to grind more and get more involved, but when guys go down every game, it makes you leery of the physical stuff."

When Islanders defenseman Randy Boyd suffered a broken rib in a collision with Washington's Alan Haworth Saturday, he became the seventh New York regular on the sidelines, prompting Arbour to comment, "This is getting ridiculous."

The Capitals have been playing -- and until Saturday winning -- without defensemen Rod Langway and Larry Murphy. But the pressure is beginning to show on youngsters Scott Stevens and Kevin Hatcher, who were on the ice for four of the Islanders' five goals Saturday and were clearly victimized on Duane Sutter's game-winning breakaway.

Coach Bryan Murray had teamed Stevens and Hatcher on opening day, then broke them up when he saw the inherent problems of such a pairing. But if there are some refinements to be made defensively, Murray likes the offensive pressure the pair generates, so he is avoiding excessive criticism.

"We got burned a couple of times with the kids out there, but they played with a lot of enthusiasm and they created chances," Murray said. "When we got behind, we pressed and gambled, and maybe we made the Islanders look better than they are.

"I can't complain about our play over the last couple of weeks. When Rod went down, we didn't know what to expect, but a lot of guys have played very, very hard to keep us competitive."

One area of particular pleasure to Murray is the penalty killing. Washington has successfully skated off 44 of 51 manpower shortages for an 86.3 percent ratio that is third in the NHL behind Quebec and Vancouver.

Two years ago, the Capitals led the league at 86.7, but last season they inexplicably fell to 14th at 76.2. One of Murray's major aims this year was to return the penalty killing to its former effectiveness and he appears to have succeeded.

An important factor has been the assignment of high scorers Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter to penalty-killing duty. They put extra pressure on the opposition because of their speed and ability to score and they give the Capitals three pairs, which allows for shorter shifts at increased intensity.

"With three rotations, everybody is fresh and able to apply more pressure on them," said Doug Jarvis, one of the sport's premier penalty killers. "We're a bit quicker out there and it's paying dividends."

"Bryan has come up with some real good combinations," Gartner said. "When I'm playing with Dougie, I know he's so responsible that once one of our defensemen gets the puck, I can go. It really makes a team think."

"Obviously, we have a lot more confidence than last year," said Bob Gould, a stellar penalty killer during the glory days two years ago. "We have more speed and guys like Bobby and Garts, if they make a mistake, they can cover it.

"The other team notices the offensive threat and they give us more room to control the puck and get it out. Going with three groups keeps us fresher, too. The way it went last year, changes were in order."