DETROIT, JAN. 23 -- The Patrick Division can't seem to keep its big names on the ice.

Although the Pittsburgh Penguins are doing fairly well without him, Mario Lemieux, owner of hockey's most talked-about back, might play his first game of the season within the next week. If he doesn't play Saturday in Quebec (his home province), he may play Tuesday when the Washington Capitals visit. Bernie Nicholls, however, isn't likely to be playing any hockey for the next month.

The New York Rangers' talented and talkative center, Nicholls separated his left shoulder Tuesday night in the team's 3-2 loss to the Islanders and today the Rangers said Nicholls won't be back for three to four weeks -- which is just about the time when the Capitals will play the Rangers twice in six days. Nicholls was hurt when he hit the ice after colliding with Randy Wood. Nicholls then got up and punched Wood in the back of the head.

The first-place Rangers, who oddly are 0-2-1 against the last-place Islanders, can only hope the midseason injury to Nicholls has the same result as the early season injury to Kelly Kisio. Kisio came back and is playing well, but, in his absence, Darren Turcotte went from being one of the league's top sophomores to being an all-star.

Big One for LaFontaine

Staying with Patrick stars a moment longer, Pat LaFontaine's peformance in Saturday's all-star game makes one wonder what he would be like on a good team. LaFontaine leads the Islanders with 25 goals and 28 assists, and he had two goals in Chicago. He and the Islanders will visit Capital Centre Sunday afternoon.

"I idolized Guy Lafleur and to get an opportunity to play with him in his last all-star game is something I will always remember," said LaFontaine, an American from the Detroit area who played junior hockey with Verdun of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Another thing worth wondering is why the Islanders don't pay LaFontaine what he is worth. Apparently, he's making about $425,000 a year, which is about half his value. The Islanders are not filling the Nassau Coliseum on most nights, but he is the only drawing card they have. LaFontaine held out for a few days in training camp, but returned for the opener. General Manager Bill Torrey has talked with LaFontaine's agent, Don Meehan, but they aren't close.

LaFontaine's contract won't be up until the end of next season. But if he is angry enough with the Islanders' management, wouldn't it be nice to see him take out his frustration by boycotting the team and playing for the U.S. Olympic team in Albertville?

Looking for Help

Detroit has the worst power play in the league and Coach Bryan Murray points to his defensemen as the problem. Capitals defenseman Calle Johansson, who was the subject of trade speculation even before Al Iafrate arrived, played a good game and scored a shorthanded goal late in the third period of the Capitals' 2-1 overtime win over Detroit on Tuesday. Murray stopped by the Capitals' practice in suburban Oak Park this morning and chatted for at least 30 minutes with Washington General Manager David Poile. Maybe they were reminiscing.. . .

Elena Larionov, wife of Canucks center Igor Larinov, gave birth to a girl, Diana, Jan. 11. The infant is the couple's second daughter, but because Diana was born in Vancouver, she is a Canadian citizen. . . .

The Canadiens, whose recent surge was keyed by improved defense, lost two of their better defensive players, Brian Skrudland and Petr Svoboda, to broken feet in consecutive games last week.