While the Washington Capitals retire to their country homes, their summer school classes and their bartending jobs, the unmitigated gall of the New York Islanders continues to play on their unwilling minds.

When the Islanders put a most unceremonious end to a most celebrated season Tuesday night, the most fervently surprised figures in Capital Centre were the Capitals themselves. A team that had attracted new praise and new fans, both nationally and locally, watched its coming-out party ruined by a few old-timers who don't know when it's time to go.

Last Saturday night, the Capitals went into Game 3 of their playoff series at Nassau Coliseum with a 2-0 lead, needing only one victory to advance to the division semifinals against Philadelphia. During the regular season, the Capitals had accumulated 101 points to the Islanders' 86 and won the season series, four games to three. After being eliminated by the Islanders two straight years, the younger, faster Capitals thought this was their year to beat the Islanders in the playoffs. So did their fans.

The angry reprise that won't leave them alone is, which shot, which stop, which ill-timed fight sentenced them to a summer of misery?

Game 3 was a tight defensive struggle, with the Islanders winning, 2-1, on two third-period goals. In Game 4, the poignant, amazing episode, Washington's 4-2 lead early in the third period disappeared. Patrick Flatley, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy scored in the final period to take an implausible 5-4 lead.

The final moments were the stuff of which wretchedness is made. With 30 seconds left, the Capitals' Bob Carpenter missed a penalty shot. Bossy scored an empty-net goal to make the final score 6-4 and even the series.

Back in Washington for what surely should have been a confetti affair, a tempered steel goalie named Bill Smith cut their hearts out. In the fifth game Smith, who had stopped Carpenter's penalty shot, shut down the Capitals on 39 saves. The Islanders won, 2-1.

Mike Gartner now will do some traveling and fishing, Dave Shand will be a part-time student and bartender. Scott Stevens, Pat Riggin, Larry Murphy and Timo Blomqvist have gone to Czechoslovakia to play in a world hockey tournament starting this week.

As for the Capitals' fans, they can only ask, "What happened in those last three games?" Some of the answers follow:

Bob Gould:

"We stopped believing we could win, I think. That might have been part of our downfall. You have to have a belief that you can beat teams like that.

"A friend of mine called me and said we were going to beat the Islanders. I said, 'They're still the Islanders on the way to the Cup until they get knocked off.' If we had knocked them off they would have been just another team.

"We needed that deep-down belief that we could win. Maybe we haven't achieved that yet.

"In the third period of the fifth game, I had a good chance to score. I went down and put it right in Billy Smith's glove. It was 2-1 and it would have tied the game up. That sticks in my mind. I had a chance to do something and I didn't.

"We'll never forget the fourth game, and people won't let us forget it either. The thing was, going into the third period everybody said, 'No more goals. We don't need to score anymore. We just have to stop them.' Maybe we should have looked at it the other way, been more aggressive. If we had made it 5-2 instead of 4-3, it would have been a tough hill for them to climb."

Rod Langway:

"I don't think anything really went wrong. I think it was just a case of the Islanders getting the breaks and capitalizing on them. We made a few little mistakes, and it seemed like each one would cost a goal.

"The final game is the one you always think about. We just ran across Billy Smith. Outplaying them as bad as we were, we were still down, 2-0, and came back. Our best period was the third period, and we still couldn't get it past Billy Smith.

"I believe we could have beaten them. We proved that in the two overtime games. We showed we can come from behind, and that's the kind of team you want to be on. Maybe we had a little too much respect for the Islanders; maybe we tried to protect our leads. But that's the way we played all year. There's no sense in changing your style and making bigger mistakes."

Al Jensen:

"I thought we played them well. Everybody worked hard, everybody was disappointed. But Smith played one heck of a fifth game. It was a very tight, low-scoring game.

"I don't really know when the tide turned. Maybe when we had them 4-2 in the third period of the fourth game. I thought we had them right then.

"But they didn't get to the finals five times in a row for nothing. They're that kind of team.

Mike Gartner:

"I've thought about this for the last couple of days and I don't know if I have any easy answers. I don't think there was any one big breakdown. The biggest thing that comes to mind is the fourth game. The last 10 minutes stick in my mind. I think they're going to come back to haunt us this summer.

"It's a lot of little things that happened. When you put a lot of small things together, it becomes a big problem. As for what went wrong, that will take a long time to analyze.

"I know that in the past we had a mental block about the Islanders. But I for one am positive we were over that.

"Smith won one game for them. In the other games, his team played extremely well in front of him, and sometimes I didn't think he even looked that sharp. He won one game, and it happened to be the last one."

Craig Laughlin:

"It was probably Game 3 in Long Island. I think maybe we should have come out stronger, attacked and been more confident. When they won that game, it gave them a lot of life. Had we gone up by a couple of goals and showed them that we were playing to win, instead of playing not to lose, it would have deflated them.

"Then, in the fourth game, we got a couple of goals and the same thing happened.

"I think they knew we could beat them. I think they honestly thought they were history. I think they probably had their golf clubs out, they were ready to play dead for us. But we didn't know we could beat them. We thought we couldn't. It was a stupid attitude to have."

Dave Shand:

"It was the third period in the fourth game. We're up 4-2, we've got the momentum, and they're dying. You could see it, they were dragging.

"Then we came out and instead of finishing them off, we let them back in it. It's the key to the whole series. If we score, we win the game 5-3 and the series, 3-1. Instead, it's 4-3 and the whole building gets pumped, they get pumped, and they win.

"In the third game, it's a tight game, and whoever scores first is going to win. They got the break and capitalized. We could live with that one.

"You never want to let it come down to one last game where one guy can beat you, and that's what we did. Billy Smith beat us. We never should have let that happen."

Dave Christian:

"It's frustrating to feel that you have the best team and you still don't win.

"I think we played as well as we could play in February. But the playoffs are in April. I don't think we were necessarily at our best in the series."