The Boston Bruins have enjoyed 20 consecutive winning seasons, longest active streak in professional sports. The way this campaign is going, that figure soon will be stretched to 21.

The Bruins carry a seven-game victory string, best in the NHL this season, into tonight's 7:35 Capital Centre contest against the Washington Capitals. Five of those triumphs have come on the road, where Boston has an 8-4-2 mark; no other NHL club has captured more than five away from home.

Less than three weeks ago, the Bruins were entwined in a six-game winless streak. No. 6 was against Toronto at Boston Garden and, after two periods, the Bruins trailed, 6-2.

Coach Terry O'Reilly chose that second intermission to remind the players of their heritage -- and a few other things. Although they fell short that night, 7-6, despite a furious rally, the Bruins have not let up since.

Four of the seven victories in the current streak have been by a goal, including Sunday's 1-0 win over Detroit. During the winless run, two games were tied and two others lost by one goal. So General Manager Harry Sinden, who has seen a lot of ebb and flow since he joined the Bruins as head coach in 1966, suggests it is not yet time to break out the champagne.

"This league is so close, we all should be careful about getting too excited when you win seven in a row or lose six in a row," Sinden said. "Any night anybody can win and we've been doing the winning lately. That has as much to do with it as anything.

"I'm not taking anything away from it. But when we went six without winning, we played three-four-five games in that set that were every bit as good as we've played in this streak. We lost some tough ones, then we got some breaks and won some."

A major reason for the run of success has been the excellent play of right wing Cam Neely, who leads the team with 14 goals, and defenseman Glen Wesley, whose 10 assists and plus-six rating place him among the top rookies in the NHL.

Sinden obtained Neely and the first-round draft choice that became Wesley in a deal with Vancouver for center Barry Pederson, who currently has six goals for the Canucks.

The Bruins also have profited from strong goaltending, provided by free agent Reggie Lemelin and Doug Keans.

Beyond that, the key is balance. Six players have scored nine or more goals (Washington has only one in that category, Mike Gartner). The penalty killers, a weak spot early, have skated off 35 of the last 40 shorthanded situations.

The identity of the leading scorer is perhaps the biggest surprise. Steve Kasper, long regarded as one of the premier defensive forwards in the NHL, is on top offensively with 23 points.

"Terry has given Stevie the go-ahead this year, putting him with Randy Burridge, who's a pretty good offensive player," Sinden said. "Normally, Stevie resigned himself to being a defensive player, but he's a clever little guy and he does have offensive skills. Most important, he comes to play every night.

"Now, he's even playing on the power play and although none of us has been too successful at it, it gives him a sense of offensive potential. A lot of this is a state of mind. Sometimes a goal scorer is prodded too much in that area and lets you down in others. But it's worked the other way with Stevie. Although Terry has taken the wraps off him, it hasn't hurt his defensive play."

The Bruins' success has come without much help from the power play, which ranks third from the bottom at 16 percent.

"We get the lead, then we get a bunch of power plays if we can and waste the rest of the game," Sinden said with a healthy dose of sarcasm. He is disgusted with the proliferation of penalties, as the NHL tries to eliminate restraining fouls.

Boston fans apparently have no complaints. A year ago, only one home game -- against Edmonton -- was sold out. But the last two contests, against Montreal and Hartford, have packed the Garden and not many tickets remain for Thursday's visit by Winnipeg.

That is the NHL's only Thanksgiving matchup, as the Bruins revive a tradition after a one-year lapse. It seems that Sinden miscounted his Thursdays in 1986 and scheduled the "holiday" game a week early. Just goes to show that nobody's perfect.

Maple Leafs 4, Islanders 3:

In Uniondale, N.Y., last night, Al Iafrate scored with 1:40 remaining to lift Toronto over New York. The Maple Leafs, who blew a 3-1 lead earlier in the third period, moved over .500 and into a tie with Chicago atop the Smythe Division.