The more the Washington Capitals change, the more some things stay the same. A crowd of 6,361 left Capital Centre with mouths pursed in "boo" formation last night after the Capitals were beaten by the Atlanta Flames, 4-2, extending their losing streak to five games.

The dissatisfaction was magnified in the last minute, when the Capitals pulled goalie Gary Iness for a sixth skater and were caught with seven men on the ice. Inness returned for the ensuing penalty, but Atlanta scored the clincher anyway as Ken Houston stole the puck from Washington's Pete Scamurra and connected on a breakaway.

The surplus of Capitols on the ice was created when Ryan Walter skated to the bench after a collision with teammate Mark Lofthouse and was replaced by two eager forwards.

The disastrous incident recalled the Buffalo game eight days ago, when the Capitals, also a goal down, were enjoying a 6-4 advantage in players. They wound up with seven that time, too, and the resulting penalty effectively disrupted a promising chance to tie.

"We try to keep the same six men out there in that situation, but obviously somebody has to come off if he's tired," Coach Gary Green said. "I pick guys and assign them to the first guy off, second guy off, and so on. But they aren't used to me saying 1-2-3 and when the first guy came off, two went out. I couldn't grab him."

Green assembled the Capitals yesterday for a one-hour skate and 1 1/2 hours of videotape dissection and blackboard instruction. Then he carted them off for a team meal and deposited them in a hotel for a nap. But, as he said, "There hasn't been time to go over everything."

One item awaiting more time is four-on-four play. Each team was short-handed when Paul Reinhart whistled, a rising 35-footer past Inness to tie the score at 2-2 late in the first period.

"That was my fault," Green said. "We were forechecking just as if we were five on five, because we hadn't practiced four on four, and we were too aggressive in neutral ice."

Washington outshot Atlanta, 10-5, in the second period, but some excellent work by Atlanta goalie Dan Bouchard prevented a score. Then, early in the third period, the Atlanta power play produced the winner.

Mike Gartner was the culprit, pulling down iron man Garry Unger, who was playing his 902nd straight game. Ivan Boldirev then cut down the right wing and passed to Jean Pronovost, completely unguarded in the slot. Pronovost beat Inness easily and the boos started.

The way the Capitals started, this appeared destined to be a happy night for once. Rookie Wes Jarvis collected his first NHL goal at 1:58 and Scamurra made it 2-0 at 3:39. Who would have guessed Washington would never score again?

Ex-Capital Bill Clement began the Flames' comeback at a time when Washington had high hopes of increasing its margin. With Atlanta's Darcey Rota off for tripping, Clement converted Promovost's feed for the first shorthanded score against the Capitals this season.

Despite the result, Green-professed to be encouraged. Perhaps this man should be negotiating with the ayatollah instead of coaching a hockey team, because no depths of adversity seem to affect his outward optimism.

"It was very encouraging," Green said. "Tonight I saw progression as far as the system goes. I know the fans are unhappy, because they wanted to win. I wanted very much to win, too.

"But I really sense that we had the necessary drive and desire. We lost because of individual mistakes and now the players know they can't play a system and make those mistakes. We still have problems with condition and timing. They can be corrected."

One thing the Capitals do not lack is nerve. Both Rick Green and Paul Mulvey exchanged punches on an even basis with Atlanta's rugged Willi Plett. And the top exhibition of brass was presented by Walter, who protested when play was halted near the Atlanta goal because Bouchard was kneeling in pain. It was Walter who had disabled the Flame goalie with a slashing stick swing that went unseen by referee Bob Kilger.