His teammates on the Washington Capitals describe goalie Al Jensen as the guy who's always there.

"I mean, always there," said Rod Langway. "That says it all. And he has been the difference some nights, in ties. He's kept us there."

There is third place in the Patrick Division with a record of 16-10-9. The Capitals trail the division-leading New York Islanders by four points.

The Capitals' surge is certainly in large part due to Jensen, who was unbeaten in nine games during their 14-game unbeaten streak, which ended with Sunday's 6-3 loss to the Flyers. Even with that loss, Jensen's goals-against average is 2.67.

Jensen has done it without any of the gimmicks often associated with goalies. If he becomes a hockey legend, it will definitely not be the result of his elaborate pregame routine.

Hockey lore is filled with stories of goalies who relied on complex rituals and superstitions, men who hoped that precise attention to insignificant details would mean the difference between a victory and a loss.

Not so Jensen. Several hours before Sunday's game, he stood outside the Capitals locker room, picking out an armload of sticks for his night in the cage. Slight of build and quick of hand, Jensen does not carry a good luck charm or even meditate.

"I do have a whole routine but it's pretty basic," he said. "If I'm playing, I'll go home from practice, eat a certain amount, sleep and come to the rink about two hours and 10 minutes before the game." He stopped. "I usually do that when I'm not playing too. I try to be ready."

Being ready may be incredibly boring to those goalies of old, but workmanlike Jensen would rather rely on preparation than ritual.

Following Sunday's game, Langway shook his head slightly and said, "The kid (Jensen) played well. A helluva game. He just never gives up."

Jensen tried not to look upset at the end of his club's streak and his own first loss of the NHL season, but disappointment had nowhere to hide.

"They just got three more goals than we did," he said, not at all flippantly. "I don't know, maybe I wasn't as sharp as I should have been.

"The reason we've been going so good is that the team really plays together. Not that we didn't work hard (against Philadelphia)," he said. "This was just one of those games, and we can bounce back from it because of the atmosphere, the attitude."

It has been suggested that Jensen is a leader. With a "who, me?" expression on his face, Jensen said slowly, "I don't think I've been leading 'em. When a goalie looks good, it has an awful lot to do with the guys in front of him."

Eager to leave the loss behind, Jensen knew he would work double time in practice. "He always plays in practice," Craig Laughlin said. "Jenny works harder in practice than anybody. Some of those saves!"

Jensen has always pushed himself in practice, from his junior hockey days in Hamilton, Ont., through a stint in the minor levels of the Detroit system, and through Hershey.

"Everybody works hard in practice," he said. "But I like to have some fun out there." Dodging an artillery round of practice pucks is fun? "Well, trying as much as I can is fun. And there are so many things I want to learn about goaltending itself, like being in the right position, always."

Jensen's goaltending style is that of a wanderer -- outside the crease, chopping down a shooter's angle. When Jensen plucks an errant puck out of midair and leaves it nonchalantly for his defensemen to pick up, he claims it's pure reaction.

"I really don't think about what I do at all," he said. Jensen has never watched videotapes of his performances, either. "I think more about the defensemen, who give me ample opportunity to see the puck and handle it," he said.

Called up from Hershey in early November, Jensen originally figured to stay with the Capitals a month. Nobody much talks about Jensen going back down, especially in view of his 9-2-4 record, and he and his wife recently traded their hotel room for a rented home in Maryland.

"But I still take it day by day," he said. "You just hope to accomplish something every day."