The Washington Capitals' longest day ended in complete frustration tonight. The Atlanta Flames shattered a 2-2 tie with two goals 13 seconds apart midway of the final period and went on to defeat the weary visitors, 5-3.

Despite a day-long odyssey of travel that preceded their fourth game in six days, the Capitals grabbed a 2-1 lead on first-period goals by Bob Girard and Dennis Maruk.

Maruk and Rolf Edberg were foiled on excellent second-period chances by Atlanta goalie Dan Bouchard, unbeaten in nine games against Washington, and Ken Houston was able to pull Atlanta even.

Still, there was hope of salvaging at least a fourth point on this win-loss-tie road trip until Guy Chouinard and Eric Vail took turns setting each other up for those big goals at 10:59 and 11:12, respectively.

Mark Lofthouse's first goal of 1979 lifted Capital hopes one last time before Chouinard's 34th goal with 1:31 remaining made the Flames the fourth-best team in the NHL.

Bernie Wolfe made his first appearance in the Capitals' nets in more than six weeks and played capably, as Coach Danny Belisle decided to end Gary Inness' string of 17 straight starts and rest the fatigued, battered netminder for Wednesday night's 7:30 home game against Detroit.

When the Capitals traveled here today from snowbound New York, they left their hotel at 7:30 a.m. and were dispatched in shifts from LaGuardia Airport, using three separate flights. The last group arrived at 4:30 p.m. heading direct to the Omni instead of resting at a hotel.

"Halfway through the third period we didn't have that extra bounce," Belisle said. "It just wasn't there. Maybe this travel was finally telling a little bit. I'm hoping we'll be ready for Detroit, though. We do have young guys and they're all in good shape."

Following the defeat, the Capitals could not yet rest, but bused straight to Atlanta Airport to catch a 12:33 a.m. flight for Baltimore-Washington International.

An older guy, 36-year-old Dennis Hextall, was playing only his fourth game in three months tonight, but he assisted on two goals and promised to be as ready as humanly possible when the Red Wings come to town.

Hextall was banished by the Wings in November, finally paid off and permitted to sign with the Capitals 10 days ago. He is not happy with the man who consigned him to limbo, Detroit Coach Bobby Kromm.

"I just hope we stick it to him," Hextall said. "It's a personality conflict and I don't think hockey should be a personality contest. If a guy's doing the job for you out on the pond, that should be enough. I think his character is the same size as his stature -- very small."

Wolfe is small in stature, but he came up very big for 50 minutes, despite not having played in a game since Jan. 7.

"I always work hard in practice and I didn't have to make any adjustments," Wolfe said."I felt not too bad, although I took a shot pretty hard (on the right thigh) in the first period.

"I'm always ready to play, because even though Gary's playing great, he's only human. It's a shame what we went through today, to play so hard and then lose it on one shift."

The Capitals had pressed for a tie breaker early in the period, after Atlanta fired the last eight shots of the second period. But Washington was running out of steam when Chouinard carried the puck up the middle on a three-on-two break. He fed Vail on the left wing and Vail went past the net, but he turned and passed out to Chouinard, who rifled the puck over Wolfe's shoulder.

Thirteen seconds later, it was Chouinard behind the net passing out to Vail in front and Vail quickly put it past Wolfe for his 26th goal.

The victims of the two goals were the Maruk-Tom Rowe-Gary Rissling line, who yielded five of the six goals in New York Sunday, Belisle said he would "take a look at my lines before we play Detroit. One line is being scored on quite a bit."

Inness will be in goal once more and, win or lose, the Capitals will have one thing in mind Wednesday night -- a good night's sleep.