The Washington Capitals begin one of their most important weekends of the season at 8:05 tonight when they host the New York Islanders at Capital Centre.

Remember the Islanders? That's the team that eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs last season, but needed a historic, six-overtime seventh game to do it. That game was a payback for a 1986 series when the Capitals eliminated the Islanders with a three-game sweep.

In all, the Capitals and Islanders have met in the playoffs five straight years, and with five points separating the first five teams in the Patrick Division this season, they appear headed for a sixth straight postseason meeting.

The teams begin play tonight with 54 points apiece and the game is the first of five remaining regular season meetings between the two. It's also the start of an all-New York weekend for the Capitals, who will host the Rangers on Saturday.

The Capitals will travel to Madison Square Garden for a game with the Rangers next Thursday, then will host the Islanders again the following day.

"It's obvious that we can lose a lot of ground or make up a lot of ground," Washington's Dave Christian said. "We're going to have that situation the rest of the season."

A week ago, the Capitals were in a crisis mode, having lost to Winnipeg and been tied by Buffalo. Since then, they've beaten Montreal and Philadelphia and lost an overtime game in Pittsburgh Tuesday thanks to two goals by NHL leader Mario Lemieux.

The Islanders know this feeling. They beat the Capitals on Dec. 4 at Capital Centre, then didn't win again on the road until Jan. 29 -- a stretch in which they lost 10 games and tied one. In another division, this might be unusual. In the Patrick, it's standard operating procedure.

"It seems every team in our division has had a stretch of not playing well," Christian said. "That's what has kept us so close. But we're playing better and feel good about that. It was a tough loss in Pittsburgh, but we did a lot of good things."

Capitals Coach Bryan Murray, the man who was so unhappy a week ago, agreed.

"Anytime we go against a good team, we play well," he said. "We lost a tough game in Pittsburgh, but really rallied {coming from 2-0 down to tie it in the third period}. Right now, we're at the point in our season where you play a game and move on. You don't have time to dwell on it because they're all important. You just go get ready for the next one."

The Pittsburgh loss broke a string of six straight victories over Patrick Division opponents. Goalie Pete Peeters continues to play well, leading the NHL with a 2.48 goals-against average.

However, Islanders goalie Billy Smith has been terrific against the Capitals, running up a 31-11-4 record. He's one of the main reasons the Islanders have won five straight against Washington.

The Islanders say the Washington games are important because victories now build confidence for the postseason. The Capitals agree, sort of.

"Sure, it's important," Washington's Mike Gartner said. "But over the last month, we've played pretty well. We've had lapses here and there. The difference is that in our division you can go from first to last pretty quickly, and that's what has happened.

"It gets magnified, so Bryan and all of us feel we have to stay on top of our game. That's why it's a big weekend, but at this time of the year they're all big. We could be in a very good position a week from now or we could be in a very bad position."

Since leading the division earlier this season, the Islanders have struggled and have won only two of their last eight games. However, they've also gone 12-9-3 against Patrick Division opponents.

Murray said he watched a tape of Tuesday's Islanders-Rangers tie, "and I thought they were playing very well. It looks like their good players are playing well, and that's one of the things you look for at this time of the year."

Thursday's Games: Mario Lemieux's 17-game scoring streak came to an end, but Pittsburgh handed Minnesota its third straight shutout loss, 1-0; Boston, which outshot Montreal, 41-22, stopped the Canadiens, 7-3; Philadelphia routed Toronto, 6-1, and Quebec got the best of the New York Rangers, 3-2.