As the Washington Capitals changed into their street clothes tonight after a 3-1 loss to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, goaltender Olaf Kolzig unleashed his rage on his teammates. Just when the Capitals were surging--going undefeated in four games after losing three straight--just when they were pushing for a playoff spot, they flopped again.

"It was a disgusting effort," Kolzig said. "It was horrible. You see the way we played at home [the last four games] and we start feeling good about ourselves and to put in an effort like we did tonight was inexcusable. It's one thing to lose to a team when you throw everything at them and the goalie stands on his head and they win 1-0 or 2-1--you can live with that. But to get 21 shots and not look like our heart was in it, I hope we respond well on Saturday and Wednesday."

Every loss puts Washington's playoff hopes in jeopardy--some are justifiable, this one might prove crippling. The Capitals (14-17-7) entered this three-game series against the Thrashers--who have the NHL's worst defense and third-worst offense--with a golden opportunity to surpass .500 and pull back into contention for a playoff spot. They responded with apathy, coming to life only after falling behind, and even then only briefly before flopping again. In doing so, they fell to 5-13-1 on the road.

"We've got to fix this," Kolzig said. "This road record is disgusting. It looks like we're ready to turn the corner and then we put in an effort like that. We've got to take advantage of situations and the schedule right now favors us. . . . I think we automatically assumed we'd get six points in these three games and next thing you know they steal two from us."

Coach Ron Wilson had urged his team, playing without injured leading scorer Peter Bondra, not to take the Thrashers lightly. He prodded them to take full advantage of this opportunity and treat each game as a must-win. They responded by playing sloppy hockey in the first period. Their offense was nearly nonexistent; their defense was brutal. Nothing resembled their previous visit to Atlanta, when they scored four goals in the first period.

"They came out hard and we didn't respond to it," Wilson said. "We allowed them to dictate the tempo of the game, the pace of the game, the physicality of the game. . . . We've talked about this being a big series for us for two or three days and we didn't respond to that."

The Capitals fell behind on a power-play breakdown, one of many. Kolzig left the puck for defenseman Sergei Gonchar behind the net, but he was being knocked off the puck by Atlanta winger Ed Ward. Gonchar fell, Kolzig was late reacting and Ward scored on a wraparound goal nearly six minutes into the second period for a 1-0 lead. Gonchar stood motionless behind the goal. Wilson glared from the bench. Gonchar took matters into his own hands.

He put the team on his back for a few shifts. He immediately stole a clearing pass at the blueline and fired at the net. The puck went to the slot and the defenseman reached for it and sent a wrist shot to goal. A booming slap shot from the point hit the far post. Less than 12 minutes into the period, he tied the game at 1-1. Joe Sacco fired from the right side, the rebound shot out to the other side and Gonchar sent it in. He had his seventh goal in 13 games after scoring none in his first 20. He had his seventh point in the last five games. But the display was but only a brief spark for his team.

The Capitals applied pressure for several minutes, then wilted.

"There's nothing you can say about this game," center Andrei Nikolishin said. "We didn't have anything--no character, nothing. Nothing. We didn't even work hard."

Gonchar had just stepped out of the penalty box when Atlanta defenseman Gord Murphy kept a puck in the zone and fluttered it to Ray Ferraro, who darted to the crease and poked it by Kolzig for a 2-1 lead with 3 minutes 31 seconds left in the period.

All of 26 seconds later the lead was 3-1. Three Capitals, playing a team that had allowed at least three goals in 15 straight games, were caught getting fancy on a rush and Nelson Emerson finished off a two-on-one at the other end. The collapse was complete.

Capitals Notes: Bondra has not skated since leaving Tuesday's game when he aggravated his knee. He was playing in his fourth game since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and is walking with a limp.

CAPTION: Adam Oates, right, has the upper hand on Thrashers' Nelson Emerson in the first period, but the Capitals couldn't get any momentum started.