The emergence of Pittsburgh as a bona fide contender has increased the importance of regular-season games within the Patrick Division. No more can Washington, Philadelphia, the Islanders and Rangers endure in-season droughts with the knowledge that they will be playoff participants anyway.

If tonight's sold-out Capital Centre contest between the Capitals and Islanders is more critical to the visitors, caught in a struggle with the Penguins and Rangers for third and fourth places, it is nevertheless being treated as a game of major import by Washington, too.

Assistant coach Ron Lapointe abandoned his usual bench position alongside Coach Bryan Murray for the first time Tuesday night. His assignment was to scout the Islanders' 7-3 home victory over the Flyers.

"We hadn't seen the Islanders in a long time," Lapointe said, "and even our tapes were out of date. Besides, it's a lot different game when you're there.

"I suggested to (General Manager) David Poile that I go to that game and the Rangers-Hartford game Monday. I enjoy being behind the bench, but I thought this would work out well and besides, I'd had the flu for 10 days and I figured it was time I did something."

Lapointe's report emphasized what the Flyers learned in losses Friday and Tuesday: Although the Islanders have had some problems this season, they are nevertheless hard to handle in big games.

"The Islanders are still a quality team," Lapointe said. "(Mike) Bossy and (Bryan) Trottier are playing the best I've seen them this season. They've got a lot of jump, and they're creative. They don't worry about who they're playing; Philly doesn't mean anything to them.

"The line of (Pat) LaFontaine, (Greg) Gilbert and (Patrick) Flatley played real well, too. They were in the Flyers' end most of the game.

"The defense certainly isn't poor, but it's not one of their strengths. Denis Potvin played very well offensively, especially carrying the puck. He seems to have lost a step defensively, but he's still a smart enough player to compensate."

Bossy, Trottier and Potvin seem to go on forever. With 33 goals in 46 games, Bossy is well on his way to a ninth straight 50-goal season. Trottier, rebounding from an off year in 1984-85, already has 22 goals and 31 assists.

Potvin, 32, is busy setting career scoring records for a defenseman. His 929 points -- 29 this season -- erased Bobby Orr's mark of 915, and he has matched Orr's 270 goals. He is 24 assists away from Brad Park's record.

"They're like Rod Langway here; they just go on and on, doing a great job," Murray said. "As a team, the Islanders seem to be playing very well. They're doing a lot of good things up front.

"They had a lot of injuries early and they were doing some experimenting, rotating extra players. This is the time of year when they'll stabilize the lineup and play very good hockey."

Murray said Lapointe's visit to Long Island was the beginning of a push in that direction, as the season winds down and the teams approach the playoffs.

"There will be much more personal scouting, particularly traveling to scout in our division," Murray said. "I'll be doing my share."

"With Pittsburgh moving up, the divisional play becomes very demanding and the regular season becomes more important. Any team that slips very much could be in a real rat race at the end of March. It keeps all the clubs, including ourselves, on our toes.

"The people who benefit most are the fans. Before the top teams always had in the backs of their minds the idea that they could slip a little and recoup in the playoffs. No more."

Langway, one of the few bareheaded players left in the NHL, was persuaded to try a helmet in yesterday's practice, but he discarded it after only 20 minutes, his face bathed in sweat.

"It was cold outside and my Russian blood got carried away today," said Langway, who appeared embarrassed to be seen in a helmet.

The Islanders are expected to continue their strict goaltending rotation tonight, which would mean Kelly Hrudey instead of Capitals killer Bill Smith. Pete Peeters draws the assignment for Washington, with Al Jensen set to play in Minnesota Saturday.