BOSTON, JAN. 5 -- It is winter and not spring, midseason and not the Stanley Cup semifinals, but a victory in Boston Garden is never a trivial matter.

The Washington Capitals lost twice to the Boston Bruins in last season's Wales Conference finals in this venerable building and then lost twice more at home. Tonight the Capitals returned here for the first time since those playoffs and for the only time in the 1990-91 regular season -- and the outcome was much more to their liking -- a 5-3 win.

Dino Ciccarelli scored two goals and Mike Liut played a superb game in goal to lead the Capitals to the victory over the Adams Division-leading Bruins in front of a sellout crowd of 14,448.

"It was not the predominant thought," Capitals defenseman Bob Rouse said of the playoff losses, "but we all like to think we can still win here."

Because the Capitals are in fifth place in the Patrick Division, the principal thought now is qualifying for the playoffs again. After going winless in eight games, the Capitals have two wins and a tie in their last three.

Ciccarelli has been scoring consistently since he returned from his broken thumb 14 games ago, but now the goals are helping grab points in the standings. Ciccarelli had a late third-period goal to save a point in Friday's 3-3 tie with Philadelphia and his two goals tonight brought his total in the 14 games to 10.

"I love playing in this building," said Ciccarelli, who did not play in the conference finals because of a sprained knee. But he has done well against the Bruins in his career. In 27 playoff and regular season games against Boston, he has 14 goals and 12 assists. "With the smaller ice surface, things happen quicker and quickness is an asset."

Dimitri Khristich, Dave Tippett and Dale Hunter also scored for the Capitals tonight, who also got three assists from Kevin Hatcher. Ray Bourque scored twice for the Bruins, whose other goal came from former Capital Dave Christian.

The Bruins took a 1-0 lead, only to see the Capitals score four straight goals. Boston clawed back to 4-3 in the third period, but the Capitals held the fragile lead until Hunter sealed the win with a late goal.

The Bruins missed wide a few times, but Liut was the reason for much of their unfinished business. Capitals Coach Terry Murray, after alternating Liut and Don Beaupre, had stuck with Beaupre in hopes he could get the team out of the slump. That was achieved, so with a second game in two nights, Murray went back to Liut. But there was a rust factor.

"More than two weeks," Liut said, referring to his start in St. Louis {a 3-3 tie} on Dec. 20.

But what about the Pittsburgh game Dec. 26 in which Liut was pulled after eight minutes and four goals?

"I wasn't even counting that," Liut said with a laugh. "I don't think I touched the puck."

Hatcher was picked off and Mike Lalor didn't shift, allowing Bourque to slip a shot past Liut for a 1-0 lead 6:02 into the first period. The Bruins kept coming, but Liut turned them away.

The Capitals had only two good chances in the first period, but Khristich scored from in tight on the first and Ciccarelli converted Mike Ridley's pass for the second, just 26 seconds before intermission.

Ciccarelli blasted a slap shot past Andy Moog four minutes into the second period and, when Tippett did the same 3:57 later, the Capitals had a 4-1 lead. The odd thing about Tippett's goal, which went in off the post, is that he has an extremely sore shoulder that makes shooting difficult.

"I just took it back as far as I could," said Tippett.

It was far enough, and Boston Coach Mike Milbury then replaced Moog with Reggie Lemelin.

The change didn't help the Bruins as much as did a power play, on which Christian put in a Craig Janney rebound. Then Bourque scored 4:30 into the third to make it 4-3.

"They must have had 15 quality chances," Murray said in praising Liut. "It was a good win for us."